Letters from our readers.
Oct. 3 1997 3:30 AM

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Java Jibe

I was very disappointed to read Andrew Shuman's "Weak Java." The question of whether Java is a good platform is an interesting and complicated one, but Shuman's analysis was alarmingly one-sided.

For instance, Shuman discussed the fact that Java is an interpreted language without bringing up the fact that many companies (Microsoft included) have developed what are called just-in-time compilers, which largely fix the slowness problem he discussed. On the fly, a JIT compiler converts Java bytecodes, normally destined to be interpreted, into machine codes, which can be run very quickly. Indeed, recent estimates have suggested that, through the use of things like JIT compilers, Java will reach speeds of between 70 percent and 80 percent of the speed of a natively run C program. Not nearly as s-l-o-w as the article suggests.

Shuman neglected to mention the other big advantage of Java, which is security. Unlike ActiveX and some of the other competing technologies, Java applets can be run without fear of the applet trashing your hard drive. A group of German hackers demonstrated how a malicious ActiveX component can take over your copy of Quicken and make financial transactions on your behalf.


There is a lot more to say on this issue, and I'm not going to try and outline all of the important points. But Shuman should have. Or rather, Slate should have found someone more likely to give a more full and nuanced view of the issue.

--Yaron M. Minsky Syracuse, N.Y.


Andrew Shuman's "Weak Java" and James Surowiecki's "Culture Wars" are frightfully irresponsible. Shuman's breezy article largely omits the implications of the reliability, flexibility, and security provided by Java in order to emphasize the cost of these benefits in execution speed. While a strong case can be made that the advantages are well worth the cost, this by itself does not reflect poorly on Slate. Nor does the failure of Surowiecki's column to note its own thinly veiled role in the culture war surrounding Java that it describes. However, that Slate chose to run these poorly constructed articles is a clear instance of Microsoft editorial influence. Readers offer attention that brings advertising revenue not for misleading propaganda like this, but for information presented with the kind of journalistic integrity that usually characterizes Slate. If such a conflict of interest cannot be handled gracefully, the subject is best avoided.


--Jeff GoldNew York City

Bottomless Mug

Evangelistic movements being what they are, I have no doubt you'll be swamped with letters responding to Andrew Shuman's criticism of the Java programming language ("Weak Java"). Here's another one, though I'm no Java evangelical (I'd much rather program in CommonLisp, thanks).

The assertion that Java is about as hard for a COBOL programmer to learn as C is sent the needle on my BS detector into the red zone. One of the nice things about Java is that the most difficult parts of C (indirection and "pointer arithmetic," among other things) have been left out of the language, while other convenience features unavailable in C (such as memory management) have been added to it. These things make it much easier to learn than C. Shuman's harping on "s-l-o-w" probably says more about the quality of Microsoft's virtual machine than it does about Java or the Java paradigm. (The virtual machine is the program that "interprets" or, in some cases, compiles and runs the compact Java bytecodes that make up a Java program.)


With the one-two punch of items critical of Java in Shuman's piece and James Surowiecki's column, "Culture Wars," I have to close my eyes and clap for Tinkerbell to believe that Slate remains independent and exercises untrammeled judgment on what points of view to present on issues directly affecting its parent corporation.

--Steve MiklosEast Norwalk, Conn.

The editors reply: This sampling of e-mail is civilized compared to the vituperative name-calling cast down on Shuman by readers who used the link on the article to e-mail him directly. (But don't feel sorry for him, he asked for it.) At this moment, Shuman is l-o-a-d-i-n-g his Java word processor and composing a response to his critics, which will run next week.

Milliken It for All It's Worth


In "Who's Buying Whom?," Paul Krugman defends himself against critics who apparently accused him of selling out to foreign powers and multinational corporations in his July column supporting trade with China ("The East Is in the Red") by attacking me as a hireling of protectionist interests directed by textile magnate Roger Milliken. Since I neither read his article on China nor wrote him a letter, the logic that leads Krugman to a gratuitous strike at me is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that he has either badly missed the mark by neglecting to do his homework, or is engaged in a willful campaign of misrepresentation. While it is true, as Krugman says, that the Economic Strategy Institute received early financial support from Milliken, it is also the case, as Krugman should have known, that Milliken ceased making contributions over four years ago when ESI, over Milliken's objections, provided critical support to the passage of NAFTA and the ratification of the World Trade Organization and free-trade arrangements concluded in the Uruguay Round. Thus, our support of free trade amounts to more than pious, theoretical declamations from the groves of academe.

ESI does not claim infallibility or even the absence of silly mistakes, but we are not for sale. We make the best case we can based on the facts as we know them. Moreover, we do not attack people, only ideas. Krugman says "the currency of academic success is creativity." Perhaps, but the ad hominem approach is usually the mark of a weak argument.

As for Roger Milliken, I don't always agree with him, but he is an honest and honorable man from whom Paul Krugman could learn a lot.

--Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr.Economic Strategy Institute

Touché à la Tonelson

In his response to my letter of Aug. 14, Paul Krugman is so determined to nail me as an economic illiterate that he loses sight of our original disagreements--and some of his own previous work. The book review of mine that Krugman initially criticized in "The East Is in the Red" cited "many reasons" for thinking that "consumer markets" in emerging countries like China, Mexico, and Brazil "are likely to stay small for decades, even if formal trade barriers come down." I singled out two such reasons: "First, largely because most of these nations have huge foreign debts to pay off, and therefore need to discourage consumption by their populations, they are pursuing export-led growth strategies. Second, if they don't keep wages and purchasing power low, they will have trouble attracting the foreign investment they require, both to service debt and to finance growth." I added that China "has made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of becoming a major importer; it aims eventually to satisfy most of its own needs."

Krugman responded in "The East Is in the Red" by observing that countries attracting enough foreign investment "both to service debt and to finance growth" must be running trade deficits. He added that China's record in particular belies my argument because its roughly balanced global trade indicates that it is not a net capital importer. Krugman is, of course, right about the relationship between trade balances and current-account balances, and about China's international balances. But as I originally stated, numerous forces are responsible for limiting the consumer imports of this disparate group of countries. Some, like Mexico (America's most important emerging-market trade partner), are struggling with huge debt overhangs and therefore must restrict domestic consumption and earn foreign exchange by focusing on exporting. Some believe that the Japanese or Taiwanese models of production and export-led development are superior to consumption-led approaches to economic growth. Some are driven by memories of domination by the West to seek substantial degrees of economic self-sufficiency. And some are motivated by combinations of these considerations.

China, with major plans to supply its own needs in industries such as motor vehicles, aerospace, and semiconductors, is clearly one country striving for self-sufficiency. The Chinese are also great admirers of key aspects of the Japanese development model. Indeed, the amassing of some $125 billion in foreign-exchange reserves has been central to China's success at pursuing export-led growth. The Chinese have accumulated these reserves by selling their own currency in order to depress its value--which, of course, keeps export prices low and import prices high. As a result, the already meager international purchasing power of China's rock-bottom wages is suppressed even further. As for Krugman's claim that most U.S. workers have seen real living standards rise over these last twenty-odd years, it is based on a poor choice of data--the U.S. government's real hourly compensation figures. This series suffers from two related problems. First, it includes all workers, from CEOs to janitors. Second, it is an average. As income inequality in the United States rises--a problem Krugman has written about eloquently--any economy-wide average will of course deviate increasingly from the median, which much more accurately describes the situation of the typical worker.

The typical worker's situation can be more accurately gauged by looking at indexes focusing on median figures for production, nonsupervisory workers--who make up 80 percent of the workforce. Such series include the median weekly earnings statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and derived from the Earnings Files of the Current Population Survey. This series, and several others, amply support my claim that U.S. living standards have been declining in the last two decades, and refute Krugman's claim that First- and Third World wages are converging "through a process of leveling up, not leveling down." Nor do the results change significantly when nonwage benefits are factored in.

--Alan TonelsonU.S. Business and Industrial Council Educational Foundation

Unsolicited Testimony

I'm not entirely certain that I have the correct e-mail spot simply to report how much I enjoy Slate. I humbly confess that when I first heard of a magazine that would be online only, I scoffed. Now, I am converted. I enjoy curling up with Slate just as I do my more material publications, and there is nothing to recycle or discard (guiltily) and no "newsprint fingertips." Thank you especially for "Today's Papers"--lots of time saved there and a nice pithy overview. Same for "In Other Magazines." And, lewd poetry from Robert Herrick, yet. All in all, the best of what's new in this cyberworld.

--Suzanne ClarkePhoenix

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