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Tuesday 27 May 2003

Trauma, Victim Culture, and Science

Last November, while commenting on the scandal surrounding the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, I discussed the motivations of various sexual-abuse ‘survivors’ groups. I said, in part:

Why is it so much worse to be diddled than to be struck? They’re both violations of the person, but while one bruise fades in short order, another bruises the soul and one can never, ever actually recover from it: only Survive and Go On Living, One Day At A Time bla bla bla. Happily, this Survival assures the long-term survival of the Recovery industry — members of which tend to be the people quoted in all those newspaper articles about how terrible the effects of x are, and how lots of therapy is needed.

I don’t deny that sexual abuse does harm to the victims; but it doesn’t do that much harm, nor is it all that common.

To which some illiterate jackass replied, in the comments:

this is the sickest thing ive ever read,the person who wrote this is obviosly the biggest ass in america, IF one thinks that a PRIEST sexually abusing a CHILD isnt “that bad” than they deserve to rott in hell. your a sick fuck

My refusal to buy into the orthodoxy that sexual abuse (or, indeed any kind of abuse, or any trauma at all) is somehow incredibly emotionally scarring makes me “sick”, and I deserve to “rott in hell”.

So I am particularly interested in a book review that appeared in The New Republic recently. Sally Satel reviews Richard J. McNally’s Remembering Trauma. I haven’t yet read the book, but Satel’s quotes and comments make it sound quite interesting, particularly as it touches on the subject of the way it has become totally unaccaptable to even question others’ claims of victimhood, even in the abstract:

[… We] must remember that just as campaigns against domestic violence, child abuse, and even the Vietnam war have advanced our understanding of victims, those same movements have at other times exploited and even manufactured victims for political ends.

This essentially political tension casts a large shadow over the field of traumatology. And when scientific data are perceived as clashing with efforts on behalf of victims, there have been ugly scenes. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been vilified for publishing groundbreaking data on the malleability of memory. As a sought-after expert witness in repressed memory cases, she has been accused of sympathizing with child molesters. A few years ago the literary scholar Elaine Showalter received death threats for her book Hystories, a study of modern epidemics of hysteria such as multiple personality disorder. In July 1999, Congress unanimously passed House Resolution 107, which “condemns and denounces” three psychologists, Bruce Rind, Philip Tromovitch, and Robert Bauserman, for a “severely flawed” study, and the Senate then approved it unanimously. The psychologists’ offense was publishing an empirical paper in the prestigious journal Psychological Bulletin concluding that child sex abuse does not inevitably lead to lasting psychological harm. McNally presents new evidence showing that the psychologists’ conclusion?which was by no means an irresponsible reading of the data they examined?might not hold up, but he is fierce about protecting their scientific freedom.

Now McNally, too, risks excommunication from the Church of Traumatology, for the charge of blaming the victim. For he presents evidence showing that emotional breakdown after a tragedy is the exception, not the rule. It occurs because some individuals are simply more susceptible than others to developing psychiatric disorders following a crisis. This will not please the psychobabblers and the melodramatists and the daytime-television bookers; but McNally is unfazed. “Ultimately the best form of advocacy,” he writes, “is pursuing the truth about trauma wherever it may lead.”

Posted by tino at 12:08 27.05.03
Monday 26 May 2003

Cars, Parks, and Car Parks

Not long ago, Brian Micklethwait on Samizdata wrote about the aesthetics of car parks. Car parks — parking lots — are a necessary part of our environment, and useful, to be sure. But why is it that they’re so ugly?

The answer is that they’re designed entirely for cars, and not for humans. The term car park — not much used in the United States — is interesting in this. The problem is that car parks are too much about car, and almost not at all about park.

I was recently in Williamsburg, VA, where there is a good parking lot. I was fortunately armed with my camera.

The parking lot in question is at an outlet mall that’s otherwise unremarkable. The only thing notable about it is that they left some of the trees alone when the built the parking lot:



For comparison, here’s a parking lot annex at the same outlet mall, built with no trees in it, a much more hostile environment:


None of these are really ideal spaces, but given that we have to have somewhere to put cars while we’re not actually driving them, the parking lot in the first two photos seems much preferable to the one in the third. The only reason the cars are there is because of the people, yet most parking lots — habitats for both cars and people — are little different from the enormous tracts of asphalt near ports where cars for export are lined up (habitats just for cars).

Obviously, it’s less expensive to build an ugly parking lot. Not only do you not have to spend any money on trees, but you get more parking spaces in the same amount of land as well. Very little we build in our society is purely utilitarian, though — even an outlet mall has little architectural embellishments intended to make the thing more pleasant to look at — so I am unconvinced by the utility argument.

I think it’s because the need to park large numbers of cars in the same place is a very recent problem. The need for parking lots as such at all has almost entirely arisen since World War II, and it’s within my memory that parking lots have grown so large as to be environments in themselves, rather than just fringes around stores and the like. When I was a child, the parking lot at our suburban grocery store had precisely three ranks of cars in front of the building and on one side: that is, one rank of cars would nose in against the building, and then two more ranks would park nose-to-nose in the lot. The far reaches of the parking lot were no more than about fifty feet from the building. I wasn’t driving then, of course, but I don’t remember parking there ever being a problem.

For whatever reason, parking in the suburbs is a problem now, and the solution has generally been simply to pave over more ground for larger parking lots — almost all of which goes unused almost all of the time. This hostility of parking lots is almost certainly costing merchants business, and it contributes a great deal to today’s familiar suburban hostility to further development.

Maybe a good short-term solution would be to offer tax credits or zoning breaks to developers who build car parks that function on some level as parks. I predict that were there to be enough of these built, suburbanites would become less hostile to more development, and developers and merchants would come to realize the benefits of having parking lots that were an enticement, rather than an obstacle, for potential customers.

Posted by tino at 23:36 26.05.03
Tuesday 13 May 2003

Professional Responsibility And Consequences

The New York Times was reduced, Sunday, to running a boxed correction on the top of its front page — a correction that jumps to four full pages inside. The Times itself describes this as a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper”.

While it’s almost certainly not actually the lowest point in the Times’ history (that would be Walter Duranty’s Stalin-polishing lies for which he won a Pulitzer prize in 1932, a laurel that the newspaper still crows about on its various websites), combined with a visible and growing bias in the Times’ news coverage over the last two years or so — a bias that has resulted in quite a few instances of incorrect if not fraudulent reporting — this scandal may well damage the paper’s credibility for some time to come.

I’m not going to say much about the scandal itself — if you want commentary about Jayson Blair, there is no shortage of it right now.

What intrigues me is the way the Times speaks of this:

Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception

[…] Mr. Blair, who has resigned from the paper, was a reporter at The Times for nearly four years, and he was prolific. Spot checks of the more than 600 articles he wrote before October have found other apparent fabrications, and that inquiry continues. [emphasis Tino’s]

Blair is a “reporter who resigned”. If you read just the headline, you might be under the impression that this is about someone who left the newspaper and whose work was later discovered to be flawed, or about someone who resigned in disgrace because he took responsibility for his actions. Neither is true; for some time after the Times had figured out (or at least suspected) what was going on, Blair continued to defend his work. When directly questioned by management about his activities, he answered with unambiguous lies in an attempt to save his career.

Of course, Blair only resigned after being told that he would be fired if he didn’t, but I don’t understand the logic behind even giving the choice. In the last couple of years, hundreds of thousands if not millions of employees have been sacked for financial reasons; but one guy can’t be fired for causing untold further damage to the reputation of what was once one of the United States’ best newspapers. He’s asked to resign like a gentleman, which he manifestly is not.

Given the publicity surrounding this case, Blair will almost certainly never work in journalism, or in any professional capacity, again. In thousands of other cases where people are ‘asked to resign’, though, there’s no publicity, just incompetence or fraud. These people aren’t fired presumably because their employers fear being sued; if someone resigns, no matter under what pressure, they will have a much harder time claiming that they were pushed out the door unfairly.

It’s about the time to revive the practice of firing people for cause. Unambiguous, high-profile cases like this one would be a good place to start, because they’re unlikely to result in any more bad publicity for the employer than they’ve already got. If being fired from a job because of malfeasance or poor performance again becomes a real possibility, we might wind up with people actually resigning on their own impuse.

In this case, the Times might have an ulterior motive; their front-page article on Sunday seems to make the case a bit too strongly that the paper considered this matter ended with Blair’s, uh, resignation:

But Mr. Sulzberger emphasized that as The New York Times continues to examine how its employees and readers were betrayed, there will be no newsroom search for scapegoats. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” he said. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives — either the desk editors or the executive editor or, dare I say, the publisher.”

In other words, the system at the New York Times, when functioning correctly, should allow reporters to file wildly inaccurate or wholly false stories for years on end. Nobody but Blair did anything wrong here, the Times is saying. All that editorial framework that failed to put a stop to this? Working as designed. This is particularly odd given the Times’ seeming house policy of belittling weblogs and other amateur media beause, according to them, the lack of an editorial infrastructure leads to inaccuracy and unreliability.

Perhaps I was wrong above, and Blair was asked to resign in order to avoid a dispute and yet more publicity. Perhaps we haven’t yet heard the worst about the Times.

Posted by tino at 10:20 13.05.03
Sunday 11 May 2003

More Customer Service Rules

Some months ago, I wrote down a number of what I called rules for retailers. These rules were written to be specifically applicable to retail operations, but they apply to pretty much anyone who’s wondering about how to improve his or her customer service. I estimate this group to contain precisely zero members, but

Anyway, I just thought of two more:

  1. Practice customer parity. This is a broad rule. It used to be said that the customer should be treated as an honored guest. That’d be great, but it’s not likely to happen these days. The very least you should aim for, though, is customer parity, which means treating the customer at least as well as you require him to treat you.

    It means issuing refunds to customers in the same form in which they paid you. If a customer pays with a credit card, credit the amount back to the card. If he paid with a check, repay him with a check — on the spot. If he paid cash, you must refund cash to him. Obviously, if the customer voluntarily agrees to another form of compensation, be this a check, a gift certificate, or jelly beans, that’s okay, too. But unless you’re willing to let a customer walk out the door with a television based on his promise to have a check sent in a week or two from his central office, it’s inexcusably arrogant and rude to ask him to accept that promise from you.

  2. Do not outsource your customer-support operations, to India or anywhere else. If you have any respect for your customers at all, you’ll handle supporting them in precisely the same way you handle taking their money. If you do business in the physical world, your prime customer-support functions should take place in your physical locations (i.e. stores). If you have a store, and a customer is in it, and you must refer the customer to a phone number to solve their problem, you have failed.

    A surprising number of companies have arranged their operations so that sales — getting money from the customer — can be carried out anywhere and with ease, while customer support — delivering value to the customer — is a complicated procedure run from a single location with arcane hours. Like the practice of refunding large cash purchases with a check mailed from the central office, this practice makes it clear that you are not really interested in providing value for money.

    Apple Computer’s Genius Bars are perfect examples of keeping sales and customer-support operations in the same place. While Apple offers support over the phone and on the web, they’ve also gone out of their way to provide support in their Apple Stores around the country.

    The best contrasting example I can think of is my former bank. I used to use a bank that pointedly did not have listed phone numbers for any of its branches in the phone book. Their listing consisted of a single 800 number, answered hundreds or thousands of miles away. The people who (eventually) answered that number were unable or unwilling to supply any information about the local branches, so the only way to speak to a particular staff member in the branch was to go down there in person. The bank had carefully arranged matters so that it was impossible to have any kind of continuous relationship with them.

    I understand that the bank was trying to streamline its operations and lower its costs by not having branch employees be bothered with answering phone calls. But what’s the real cost of a policy that makes it clear to your customers that you consider them a burden?

    Operating call centers is a horribly expensive proposition, and it’s quite the thing these days to outsource your call-center operations to third parties located someplace where labor is relatively cheap, like Wyoming or India.

    However, when you outsource your customer contact, you step into the Twilight Zone of business — as in, your business is in the twilight of its life. Outsourcing your customer contact means, obviously, that you don’t talk to your customers and they don’t talk to you. Any customer problem that you did not specifically anticipate and build in to the decision tree that you handed off to the outsourcing company will result in an unsatisfied customer.

    Before you outsource your customer contact, and ask yourself why people should buy their widgets from you instead of Discount Widget Warehouse, or whoever else happens to have the cheapest prices this week. If the answer involves the word “service” or “support” or “relationship” at all, you’re in the customer-service business, and you should probably act like it.

Posted by tino at 19:36 11.05.03
Thursday 08 May 2003

Politics, Entertainers, and Art

The Clash have long been one of my favorite bands, even though they were an overtly political group that championed theories that I believe to be diametrically wrong. That they came out of the mess of 1970s Britain does not give them a pass; but their music was great, and it’s certainly worth listening to, whatever their politics. I have no problem with listening to music about the injustice of capitalism, if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.

The Dixie Chicks, Susan Sarandon, and Sheryl Crow are no different than The Clash in this case. I am not fond of any of those specific performers, but for aesthetic and not political reasons. They’re entertainers, and I don’t see what their political views should have to do with my enjoying their work.

(For the same reason, I refuse to boycott French wine and cheese and German car parts. A boycott is not going to cause Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder to become less odious, or to rethink their Fascist scheme for conquering Europe; I’ll still have to listen to those two idiots on TV and I’ll be denied the good things that result from the existence of France and Germany.)

I certainly lose some respect for the intellect of people whose opinions are based primarily on politically-correct Marxist ideology, but if I otherwise like their work, I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy it. Past a certain point, of course, the feeling that the person up on the screen is an odious idiot can make it difficult to separate the performer from the work; but I haven’t yet reached that point with anyone whose work I otherwise find entertaining.

Margaret Drabble has found a place, I think, that is well beyond the point where one ignore the idiocy and enjoy an artist’s work. While Sheryl Crow et al. have shown arrogance at their own importance and errors in their own judgement, a recent column in the Telegraph by Ms. Drabble makes me think that the woman is mentally ill.

Drabble is a British highbrow author (aside from her own books, she seems to be the official writer of introductions for classic novels written by women), and she, according to her article — indeed, according to the article’s headline — “loathes” America.

To begin with understand that my basic premise here is that Drabble is an idiot. Among other things she offers to justify her loathing is that some American warplanes she saw on TV had sharks teeth painted onto the nose.

But there was something about those playfully grinning warplane faces that went beyond deception and distortion into the land of madness. A nation that can allow those faces to be painted as an image on its national aeroplanes has regressed into unimaginable irresponsibility. A nation that can paint those faces on death machines must be insane.

In support of the argument that Drabble doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about, I offer these images:


These are RAF planes from World War II. Note that they are all equpped with painted-on teeth. I believe this originated because the distinctive radiator housings on the lower fuselage of some of the aircraft of the era. Regardless of where the idea came from, the United States, the UK, and Canada, at least, all painted teeth on their fighters. I do not believe that Ms. Drabble would judge the Battle of Britain as “madness”, “insane”, or “unaimaginable irresponsibility”, despite the fact that painted teeth were deployed in that conflict. I believe that it is more than safe to assume that Ms. Drabble’s horror at the painted teeth is a reflection of her opinions about the United States, rather than vice versa.

I’m not going to go in for examining Ms. Drabble’s argument point by point — she’s really too incoherent for that to even be possible, much less interesting or entertaining. Based on part of her article, though, I think I may be able to see some of her motivation. She says

I detest Disneyfication, I detest Coca-Cola, I detest burgers, I detest sentimental and violent Hollywood movies that tell lies about history.

I detest American imperialism, American infantilism, and American triumphalism about victories it didn’t even win.

All of which is frankly baffling. She detests American ‘imperialism’, but the United States doesn’t have an empire. As far as ‘infantilism’ and ‘triumphalism about victories it didn’t even win’, I have to say I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Some clues to the roots of her hatred might be found in the previous paragraph, though, where she mentions “Disneyfication”, burgers, and Coca-Cola. I think that her charge of ‘imperialism’ has to do with these three things.

“Disneyfication” presumably refers to the tendency of the Disney company to dilute culture to a watery gruel that’s fit for consumption by children, and, in a broader sense, the tendency of American mass culture — particularly the culture that’s exported — to be, well, Disneyfied. Burgers and Coca-Cola presumably refer to the popular sandwich made with a patty of ground beef in a bun and a famous sugary beverage from Atlanta.

These things are often cited, along with Britney Spears, Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, Baywatch, etc. as evidence of American “cultural imperialism”.

I will leave Disneyfication aside for the moment, and address burgers and Coca-Cola. What, precisely, is the matter with burgers and Coca-Cola?

Nobody is forced to purchase or consume Coca-Cola, in the United States or elsewhere. It’s an industrial and not a natural product, but other than that and the fact that there’s no alcohol in it, I do not understand the difference between Coke and the national beverages of any other countries. I don’t like skunky beer, but I don’t allow that to color my opinion of the Canadians.

And burgers…? A hamburger consists of beef and bread, often with pickles and/or other condiments. It’s admittedly an informal dish, and one that Americans perhaps eat too often. But I do not understand what a non-vegetarian can possibly have against hamburgers per se. It’s likely that what Ms. Drabble loathes is McDonald’s and other American globe-spanning fast-food chains. There are two problems with this. First, as any American will tell you, what McDonald’s serves are not proper hamburgers. The Big Mac may be tasty, but it’s a pale imitation of a real hamburger. Second, as with Coca-Cola above, nobody is under any obligation to buy and eat the things. McDonalds and Coca-Cola continue to sell their product overseas, and to make money doing so, because a lot of people want these products. It’s not the United States that’s the odd man out here, it’s Margaret Drabble. To paraphrase Homer Simpson — whom Ms. D. almost certainly loathes — everyone is stupid but her.

‘Disneyfication’ I’ve left for last because it’s a bit more realistic charge. American culture does genuinely tend to chew things up and to spit out a much more watered-down version. Disney — they’re not the only company that does this, but they make a perfect example — makes much its money from bowdlerizing classic tales while at the same time doing its level best to monopolize the culture to the extent possible. This might be sound business practice, but it’s unhealthy for the culture as a whole.

But, again, nobody is consuming Disney culture at gunpoint. As amazing as it is, even to me, people voluntarily pay their hard-earned money to be entertained by Disney. I assure you, Disney’s plan for world domaination extends only as far as amassing all the world’s money. If what the people of the world really wanted was to see dramas about lonely pergnancies, jealous sisters, fears of physicality, and loss of identity, Disney would be satisfying that desire and raking in the dough — or someone else would be, and Disney would go out of business. Observation — of Disney’s success — indicates that people around the world prefer Disney’s treacle. Again, this is because everyone is stupid but Drabble.

Margaret Drabble does not hate America because it is the source of Big Macs, Coca-Cola, and the nasty, fat, yellow Winnie the Pooh. She hates these things because America is their source.

While my disdain for Disney and Disneyfication in general should be apparent, I’ll also admit that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are not always unalloyed goods. Perhaps the worst effect they have is in creating a world in which you can not ever really leave the United States. If you leave France, for example, and travel to another country, you leave almost all of France behind. But America and American culture is everywhere — something that can be annoying, and something that must be quite threatening to someone who isn’t American and whose profession is culture.

But — not to be repetitive, but this is an important point — the spread of American culture is spread by private enterprise hoping to make money, and nobody, anywhere on Earth, is under any obligation to spend his or her money in order to make this strategy work. American culture spreads not as the result of a diabolical scheme by gnomes in the basement of the U.S. Information Agency in Washington, but as the result of millions — billions — of people around the world making the decision to consume American cultural products.

Ms. Drabble would do… what? Ban such behavior and such culture? Require people to adhere to the view of the world that she prefers? Require them to loathe what she loathes? No wonder she’s so upset at the United States; in Iraq, it recently deposed a leader whose policies were presumably in line with Ms. Drabble’s own thinking.

Posted by tino at 13:29 8.05.03
Wednesday 07 May 2003

The Economic Fallacy of Spam Redux

Yesterday, I wrote about my skepticism about the business of spamming. Specifically, I challenged the common assertion that spam makes money despite abysmal response rates, and I mentioned that I was disappointed in the Wall Street Journal for accepting this assertion without comment.

Today’s Journal carries a story (subscription required — this link might work if you’re not a subscriber) on the front page about Earthlink’s attempts to track down a particularly obnoxious spammer.

Earthlink alleges that over a year, Howard Carmack, of Buffalo, NY, opened 343 Earthlink accounts using stolen or fraudulent credit card numbers, and that he sent approximately 825 million spam e-mails.

[… In] the fall of 2002, EarthLink filed an amended complaint adding the names of individuals who owned phone numbers or post-office boxes affiliated with the spam. Among those was Angelo Tirico, a Florida man who was selling “Mother Nature’s Wonder Pill,” an herbal stimulant, over the Internet.

Mr. Tirico told EarthLink investigators that he found a man named Howard Carmack on a Web site promoting spamming services in May 2002, according to a lawsuit filed by EarthLink. He said Mr. Carmack advertised himself as a “mailer with extra bandwidth looking for a project to mail.”

After a series of e-mails and phone calls, Mr. Tirico said, he agreed to pay Mr. Carmack $10 for every sale of the herbal stimulant he generated. Mr. Tirico said Mr. Carmack bragged that he had sent out “over 10 million” spams on his behalf. All those spams generated a mere 36 sales, and he paid Mr. Carmack $360 for his efforts. But the huge volumes of spam were generating tons of complaints, Mr. Tirico says, so he asked Mr. Carmack to stop spamming.

So for sending out “over 10 million” spams, you get $360. The article doesn’t say anything about how much money Mr. Tirico made from selling the actual product, but it can’t have been worth the trouble, because he gave up the practice.

If we assume that Earthlink’s total of 825 million e-mails is correct, and if we assume that Mother Nature’s Wonder Pill is a representative product in terms of response rates, and that he actually sent out ten million e-mails on Mother Nature’s behalf, we can conclude that Mr. Carmack grossed about $29,700 in the last year. Out of that, he’s got to pay for his time in setting up new Earthlink accounts (nearly one new account every day), he’s got to acquire stolen or fraudulent credit card numbers, he’s got to rent mailboxes, he’s got to buy computers, he’s got to buy or develop software, he’s got to pay his phone bills, and he’s got to spend money on marketing his own services to others.

Oh, and in doing all this, he exposes himself to enormous civil and criminal liability. For $30,000 a year. How is 36-year-old Mr. Carmack doing these days?

Mr. Carmack is a body-builder and was a high-school football star, according to his uncle, Joseph. Relatives and neighbors say Mr. Carmack lives with his mother in a run-down neighborhood of Buffalo, near the state-university campus, in a modest brick house with sky-blue linoleum siding.

He’s living with his mother in a run-down neighborhood.

There’s a long tradition of doing illegal things for money. It’s possible to get quite rich by doing work that’s illegal or only tenuously legal. Classically, though, this work pays extraordinarily well, because of the legal risks involved. This is why Tony Soprano’s house is so large; he makes a lot of money for work that’s not all that sophisticated because he’s always running the risk that the FBI will show up at his door with a warrant. He’s got, besides the large house and the nice cars and that boat, thousands of dollars in cash hidden around the place for emergencies.

Not only does it look like Mr. Carmack isn’t getting compensation for his legal risks, he apparently isn’t even making enough money to move out of his mother’s house.

I have to conclude that most spammers are at least a little stupid, and that they underestimate the cost of the risks they’re taking. This lack of compensation for risk is the only thing that makes spam remotely possible these days. Never mind the cost to society in lost productivity and wasted money on scams; the cost to the spammers themselves isn’t being recouped by spam.

The Journal doesn’t explicitly point this out in today’s story, but at least this time the facts are all there, and the reader can draw his own conclusion: spam doesn’t pay.

Posted by tino at 14:41 7.05.03
Tuesday 06 May 2003

The Purpose of Recess

Joanne Jacobs, in her excellent education-centric weblog, today points out a column in the Bucks County Courier Times about the soon-to-be-implemented recess regime in the Neshiminy (PA) School District. The headline is “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Hans Blix”, and the new recess policy is described thusly:

“Peaceful Playground” will be adopted by the district’s eight elementary schools in September.

First, something called a “peace maze” will be painted on each playground. Kids at loggerheads with each other will walk the maze’s seven steps of “conflict resolution.” […]

At recess, [the school district’s ‘violence prevention coordinator’, Marcy Spingler] said, it’s common to see lots of kids standing around waiting their turn at kickball or soccer.

But playground aides will train to present games that are played in small groups and that stress “inclusiveness.”

Which means if you’re athletically gifted with leadership qualities whom others instinctively follow, find yourself another playground, kid.

There will be no team captains in Neshaminy’s schoolyards.

“That’s so there’s no one saying, ‘You know what, you can’t be on my team,’ ” Spigler said.

The new recess games won’t require great physical ability, she said.

For example, in “hoop ball,” kids bounce a ball back and forth to each other, making sure it hits inside a hoop placed on the ground.

The classic hands-on game, “tag,” is replaced with a hands-off version called “Motion Pictures.” In this game, photographs of different points around the school playground are placed in a basket.

A child plucks out a photo, then runs like blazes to it, tags it and returns.

“It still gives them the exercise. They’re running. But we can avoid things like how hard do you tag someone. Nobody gets pushed over. You can play it by yourself,” Spigler said.

Also, kids will be encouraged to plan their recess activities.

“Kids with nothing in mind before recess tend to get in trouble if they don’t schedule their recess,” Spigler said.

This is horrifying, but I think that J.D. Mullane, the columnist, Joanne Jacobs, and the headline writers miss the true horror entirely.

Is the risk here really that children will grow up to be Hans Blix? I understand that lot of people find Blix annoying because of his insistence on inspections in Iraq, but remember that Blix is an inspector. That’s what he does: he inspects. Because of his role, the only tool he has is a proverbial hammer, so he’s going to see a lot of nails.

But Blix is a leader, and a successful and well-educated man. He’s held executive positions with the Swedish government and the U.N. Blix is a diplomat and an inspector, and as such his prime goal is going to be to avoid armed conflict and to go on inspecting forever. His public remarks while arms inspections were still going on in Iraq seemed, actually, to be incredibly blunt and critical of the Iraqis. He didn’t say ‘inspections are a failure, and you should start bombing’, true, but then it wasn’t his place to say that. He said, in as about a straightforward way was you’re ever going to hear a diplomat speak, that the Iraqis were not complying with their obligations. And for this he’s called weak.

The danger isn’t that these bubble-wrapped kids are going to grow up to be Hans Blix. The danger is that, having been deprived of the opportunity to learn social skills in the unstructured world of school recess, they’re going to grow up to be socially-incompetent adults with an incredible willingness to submit to authority, and with no ability to think on their feet. (See here for comments I made in January on the same issue.)

Recess, you see, is at least as important a part of the school day as geography class. It’s when kids learn to interact with peers as peers, rather than as colleagues in a system governed by outside authority.

There’s always been outside authority on the playground, embodied by the recess ladies, of course, but that’s because it’s assumed that these kids don’t yet fully know how to operate in a peer group, and that there will be some occasional intervention needed.

The structured-recess people don’t deny this, I think, but rather they think that by funneling the kids’ energies and wills in certain directions, they can affect their behavior as adults: a child who follows the peace maze enough times will solve his adult problems in a non-violent manner.

This is an enormous piece of social engineering, one that’s totally unnecessary and destined to fail. It will fail catastrophically if it’s allowed to go too far.

You see, one of the things that kids learn by playing games where someone’s feelings might get hurt is that feelings sometimes get hurt. Kids learn how to deal with feeling rejected, and, hopefully, other kids eventually learn how not to make others feel bad.

Games where knees might get skinned teach kids about limits, and, to a certain extent, they teach them how to take risks.

The real world, where these kids will spend most of their lives, does not have peace mazes painted on the ground, and it doesn’t have violence prevention coordinators. It’s up the adults these kids will become to prevent their own violence, and to make their own peace. The fact that the vast majority of adults in modern society are not violent would seem to indicate that the playground strategies of twenty or thirty years ago do not result in violent behavior.

Incidentally, The official pitch of the ‘peaceful playground’ people — Peaceful Playgrounds is a company that licenses playground markings and activity guides to schools — is largely an economic one. They stress a reduction in injuries (and thus presumably expenses, and apparently with all the kids playing follow-the-gruppenführer you can pack more of them into a smaller space:

When the Principal of Pioneer Elementary in Escondido realized that with a playground of less than 4 acres for a student population of over 1,000 students something needed to be done to maximize the time the students spent on the playground. She turned to Peaceful Playgrounds for the solution.

Posted by tino at 16:22 6.05.03

The Economic Fallacy of Spam

The conventional wisdom — you see this repeated all the time in the news — is that spamming is a business like any other, if a bit more annoying. That, yes, the response rates are incredibly low, but that this isn’t important because the cost of sending out millions of e-mails is almost nil.

The Wall Street Journal this morning characterizes (subscription required) it this way:

It’s as if the post office offered a small business free postage and same-day shipping for 100 million brochures. What fool wouldn’t jump at the offer, particularly if everyone else was already doing it?

The Journal is usually better at understanding economics than this.

To begin with, sending out spam is not free. It’s nowhere close to free. Sending out the volumes of mail that people associate with spam is actually a fairly expensive proposition. You’ve got to buy a computer — multiple computers, if you’re going to send out 100 million e-mails — software, the mailing list itself, and network access.

Oh, and that network access is going to cost you, in money and especially in effort, because you’re going to have to switch providers every day or two as you get banned for sending out spam.

You also have to write the pitch, have something to sell, have a way to collect payments, and, if you’re selling something physical, have a way to ship it.

After all that, yes, the marginal cost of sending a single e-mail is close to nothing. This does not mean that someone selling one $29.95 penis lengthener after sending out a million e-mails is going to make much (or any) money in the end.

Let’s look at what the spammers are trying to sell: over the weekend, my main e-mail account got spam in nine distinct categories:

6Find out anything about anyone
5Penis enlargement
5Reverse aging/HGH/feel younger
5Get-rich-quick schemes
3Shady prescriptions
2Mail-order degrees
9other (includes eBay scams, Iraq most-wanted cards, catalog scams, miracle flashlights, sexual stamina boosters, credit card scams, random software offers)

Anyone who is at all familiar with spam will note that these are the same things that have been heavily spamvertised for the last year, at least. And the porn ads, the most numerous and the only ones that seem likely to draw repeat customers (after all, once you’ve found a good source for your PhD. or your generic Viagra — some places sell both in a package deal — you’re likely to stick with the people you know), generally aren’t advertising porn websites at all, but rather websites filled with pay-per-impression ads for other websites that offer dozens of pay-per impression ads for etc., etc. ad infinitum.

It’s unlikely that anyone is making any significant money off any of this stuff any more, if they ever did. Most of the people who are interested in these particular products will have bought them the first time they saw the ad for them, or the second, or… the hundredth. Sure, a few people who have been living under a rock will keep buying now and again, but by and large these products either are outright scams or are not in demand to begin with. If these things were actually in demand, they’d be selling them down at Wal-Mart. (The few spamvertized products that are in demand, like mortgages, are tainted by their association with spammers; the value of a mortgage offer from Sarah81234@hotmail.com is nowhere near the value of a mortgage offer from a legitimate financial institution.) And besides all that, these products have been marketed to death already.

It’s been suggested that the main product of spam is… spam. That is, the spammers make their money by selling e-mail addresses to other spammers. The majority of the spam you get isn’t trying to sell you anything at all, but rather just trying to see whether your e-mail address works. When you’re sent an HTML spam with pictures in it, the spammer can see whether a particular image was loaded from their web server. If the image that was encoded into a spam sent to your address was loaded, it can be assumed that someone is reading that mail. The address is verified, and thus more valuable.

This would indicate that the main fuel for the spam industry to expand and indeed to survive is gullibility. If selling addresses make the spam world go ‘round, then the industry would need regular and large infusions of capital from the outside world, or nobody would make any money at all.

If addresses and not dollars are the main product of most spams, then spam will continue only as long as those addresses are valuable; and those addresses will be valuable only as long as new people continue to enter the industry believing that they’ll be able to make money. And here’s the odd thing: the constant media coverage of how pervasive spam is, and how hard it’ll be to ever stop spam because it’s sooo lucrative feed the spam industry. People who don’t know anything about economics read in the Wall Street Journal that it’s possible to “make money” with a response rate of one in a million, and they head out to buy a mailing list.

For a lot of them, I think it eventually becomes a game, a test of their wits to see how many spams they can manage to get past anti-spam filters, ignoring whether or not getting an ad to someone who is deliberately trying to avoid it, and thus not likely to buy whatever it is you’re selling, is worth the effort.

There are, to be sure, some people for whom spamming works financially: people already in some kind of mail-order business where the competition is so fierce that you can’t afford to worry about your reputation (I’m thinking mail-order pharmacies and porn here, among other things), and there are some people like this guy who make money by acting as spam cannons, people who sell spamming software, and people who sell mailing lists on a large scale. Only the legitimate direct merchants — legitimate here meaning not people selling generic Viagra out of their basements — stand to benefit from spam in the long run, and even them I’m not so sure about. The rest of them I predict will eventually get out of the practice — and I’m figuring that before assessing the cost of dealing with deliberate anti-spam efforts, which are proliferating.

In the meantime, we’re sure to see increasingly desperate measures by spammers attempting to get their ads past increasingly-sophisticated filters, and some high-profile battles on Court TV as the laws evolve and prosecutions of spammers increase. Here’s to hoping that the news media will begin to critically examine the economics of spam, rather than repeating the tired old line about response rates.

(N.B. If you send me mail about any of this, be sure to include the word “NOSPAM” in your subject line; mail mentioning many of the topics here gets filtered into the spam bucket.)

Posted by tino at 08:39 6.05.03
Monday 05 May 2003

E-mail Addresses In Comments

One of Movable Type’s deficiencies is its inability to accept obfuscated e-mail addresses for comments. If you supply an e-mail address at all, it has to be a plainly valid address, ripe for harvesting by spammers.

I’ve never liked this, so I’ve made some changes. When leaving comments now, you can obfuscate your e-mail address in the form of “tino at tinotopia dot com”. I have not tested it fully, but I have every reason to believe that this will also work with e-mail addresses of the form of “someone at host dot domain dot com”. If you have trouble with this, please send some e-mail to our technical support department.

Posted by tino at 21:14 5.05.03

Cultural Imperialism My Ass

The BBC reports, apropos of the United States’ general view of the world:

The belief that all reasonable people - given the chance - ought to behave as Americans behave is deeply engrained here.

That is why it was a shock to see Shia Muslims in Iraq choosing to celebrate their new-found freedom not by opening a Starbucks and washing their cars, but by walking barefoot to a holy site, all the while whipping themselves with chains.

This they would not do in Milwaukee.

They wouldn’t do it in Manchester, either, but that’s irrelevant. The trouble here is that those damned Americans are judging the ‘Other’ simply because that ‘Other’ beats itself with chains. How amateurish. How absolutely reeking of simplisme. Just what you’d expect from those Americans, actually.

Posted by tino at 18:18 5.05.03

D.C. Goes On Shooting Itself In The Foot

While Mayor Tony Williams makes speeches about how he wants to attract 100,000 new residents to Washington, D.C., the rest of the city’s government goes on giving people more reasons to not come into the city at all, even for a visit. Washington Post:

The District government has begun issuing $100 tickets to vehicles with out-of-state license plates that are repeatedly parked overnight on city streets, under the presumption that they belong to D.C. residents who have not registered their vehicles in the city.

The city patrols the streets between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., and records out-of-state license numbers. If your non-DC vehicle is spotted three times, you get a ticket. The article doesn’t say anything about what happens if your vehicle is spotted in three wildly differing places, but I’d imagine you get a ticket anyway; DC is not known for law-enforcement subtlety.

The purpose is to force Washington residents to comply with the law that says that they’ve got to register their cars with the city within thrity days of moving to DC.

Most places don’t have a problem with people refusing to register their cars locally, but the DC government goes out of its way to make the process as difficult, expensive, and unattractive as possible. (Progress is being made, though: soon there will be two places in the city where you can get a safety inspection done — but still only during business hours Monday through Friday.)

And if you do the right thing and register your car locally, you’re putting yourself at the mercy of the DC government’s mind-boggling incompetence. Not long ago, the city changed its registration-renweal and parking-permit stickers. There was an article in the Post, and the police and parking enforcement people were told about these changes. They went on writing tickets on perfectly legal cars for months, because they were not displaying the old-style stickers and permits.

Noam Stopak, 44, of Bethesda said he visits his fiancee in Northwest Washington at least every other weekend. He said when he got a warning ticket on March 8, he called the DMV to explain that he is not a D.C. resident.

A DMV official told him that it didn’t matter where he lived, he said. “I offered to show them my mortgage, my water bill, and they said it doesn’t matter. They said, ‘You can register your car in the District’ … or I could just stop coming to the District.”

Ah, yes. It’s really a pity that there are not other problems facing the government in DC, like say failing schools, a rising crime rate, or a total lack of civil order in the streets in certain neighborhoods at night. If DC were faced with any of those things, it might not have time and money to waste on discouraging the middle class from visiting the city.

Posted by tino at 13:43 5.05.03

The Problem With Non-Lethal Force

The problem with non-lethal force is that it’s specifically intended to be a low-intensity kind of thing, so it winds up getting used more casually, and in more situations, than is good or necessary. Most if not all law-enforcement agencies in the United States have a policy of using ‘non-lethal force’ to subdue suspects. Presumably ‘lethal force’ means shooting someone, and ‘non-lethal force’, while actually being a catch-all term, seems to mean ‘pepper spray’ almost all of the time.

The police have always had non-lethal force at their disposal, of course: the billy club. But even with euphemism (in the Rodney King trial, the act of smacking Mr. King on the head with a stick was referred to as ‘delivering power-strokes with the baton’), it’s an inherently violent, aggressive act, and it looks extremely bad on TV (cf. Mr. King). On a practical level, it also requires the cop to get extremely close to the suspect and thus to expose himself to possible injury, and it’s certainly possible to permanently injure or even kill someone with the ‘non-lethal’ nightstick.

So the pepper spray has certain advantages: the officer can stand at arm’s length and subdue the suspect, and there’s little or no chance of permanent harm to the sprayee.

But precisely because the use of pepper spray is so simple and innocuous, it seems to be used by the police as a first resort and in situations where there’s no need for any force, even ‘non-lethal’.

This story of a recent police encounter in Fort Lauderdale is interesting:

A deputy used pepper spray on a 12-year-old girl and wrestled her to the ground when she ignored repeated orders to stop jaywalking, the sheriff’s office said Friday.

Jaywalking. The very definition of an absurdly minor crime. To be sure, jaywalkers put themselves and others at risk, and they can tie up traffic, but jaywalking is hardly the kind of offense that merits being maced.

Ah, but there’s more to the story:

The girl also walked away and ignored four more orders to stop and put her hands behind her back, he said.

The girl […] threatened to hit Roberto and rolled her hand in a fist, the report said. The deputy repeatedly warned her that he would use pepper spray if she didn’t listen.

Well, that’s different. This person was threatening to assault the officer. Being a cop is a risky job to begin with, and there’s no reason why the police should take any more risks than they have to. But wait — I deleted a passage in the second paragraph there. Let’s see what the original said:

The girl, who is 5 feet 1 inch and 134 pounds, threatened to hit Roberto […]

Ah. Hm, well now. That puts the risk to the officer in some kind of perspective, doesn’t it?

(As an aside: the article also says:

Deputies seeking to stop accidents along busy Federal Highway have been ticketing Olsen Middle School students for the past several weeks.

— Which would seem to indicate that there’s a significant need for the students to cross the road there. It’s far easier and cheaper, though, to write tickets and mete out non-lethal force than it is to actually adapt the human habitat to the needs of the humans.)

I’m not saying that this jaywalking girl didn’t deserve to be arrested, or that the police officer in this particular case was necessarily overreacting by using pepper spray; I wasn’t there. But this is hardly the only incident within recent memory of police using what seems like excessive force, but this use being silently accepted because that force is ‘non-lethal’.

To name just one example, last year, a Washington Redskins football game was delayed when police used pepper spray to subdue a disturbance in the stands, and the fumes drifted onto the nearby field and incapacitated a number of players. No arrests were made in the incident, and since there were a number of police officers within pepper-spraying range (and thus well within eyewitness and identification range), I have to conclude that these people weren’t doing anything that was actually illegal. Nevertheless, the police felt justified in using a weapon (albeit a non-lethal one) that causes significant collateral damage (drifting spray) when used on a large area.

The police — too many of them, anyway — aren’t using the pepper spray instead of clubbing or shooting someone, they’re using it instead of negotiating. It makes the job easier, and wraps up things a lot more quickly. The cops probably believe that this hair-trigger approach will result in people being more submissive, but past experience would seem to indicate that it’s going to result in a general escalation of hostility. If the scofflaw public starts to believe that any encounter with a cop that’s less than perfectly harmonious is highly likely to result in a pepper-spraying (or a taser-ing, or any one of a number of other non-lethal responses), they’re going to be much more likely to come out shooting in the first place.

Posted by tino at 00:01 5.05.03
Saturday 03 May 2003

Smith College and Gender

The Smith College student government is excising gender-specific pronouns from its constitution in order to be less exclusionary.

Since one of the defining characteristics of Smith is that it excludes students who are not female, this might seem odd. According to the Hampshire Gazette though:

The student government vote is an indication of a deeper issue facing Smith College, and other same-sex institutions, which is that a growing number of students identify themselves as transgender, and say they feel uncomfortable with female pronouns.

“Smith College is a college for women, and within that there is a place for all kinds of women,” said Brenda Allen, director of institutional diversity.

So. If you were born physically female but feel yourself to be psychologically male, you are welcome at Smith College. It seems to me that the proper way to ‘celebrate’ the transgender ‘community’ at Smith would be to throw them out. If having feminine pronouns applied to them could make them feel uncomfortable, every moment they’re students at Smith must be a psychic horror.

In addition to the issue of gender identity, within the transgendered movement there is also the matter of sex-reassignment surgery, formerly known as sex-change operations.

Dean of the College Maureen Mahoney said there is no policy in place at Smith that prevents students from undergoing sex-reassignment surgery while students are at the college.

Does this include male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery (formerly called sex-change operations)? I understand that it’s almost impossible to undergo the surgery as a minor; there’s a lot of psychological counseling involved, and it’s generally felt that you have to have the perspective of an adult to make the decision.

Most of Smith’s entering freshmen would be 18 or 19 years old, so it’s unlikely that a ‘woman’ who was born with a penis and testicles would have been able to have her surgery before entering. Or does ‘all kinds of women’ mean ‘all kinds of people born physically female’? I rather suspect that it does.

[Dean Mahoney] said that though Smith is a women’s college and only accepts women, the school has no intention of rejecting students who undergo a sex-reassignment surgery while a student.

I don’t expect this to happen, but this might be a good time for Smith (and other women’s colleges) to re-examine their premises. The student government at Smith — and thus, I assume, the general Smith vibe — holds that those students who are psychologically male should be accomodated and respected.

Unless, of course, those psychologically male students are also physically male, in which case they must not be allowed to enroll. In the past, the justification for maintaining single-sex colleges for women while forcing all-male institutions to allow women to enroll has been that women perform better in a single-sex environment, and that they’re imtimidated and harmed by, for instance, the generally more competitive, more aggressive style of men in classes.

However, while all natural-born men and women who were born with male genitalia are assumed to be a drag (no pun intended) on women’s education, a man in a Smith class who happens to not have a penis, or who happens to have a surgically-constructed penis, is not.

You can’t have it both ways. If you are determined to see gender as a social construct (and indeed if you’re determined to see sex and gender as discrete things in human beings), you can’t bar the door to people based on what equipment they have.

Posted by tino at 22:51 3.05.03