Readers on punctuating posts in the Fray.

Readers on punctuating posts in the Fray.

Readers on punctuating posts in the Fray.

What's happening in our readers' forum.
Dec. 24 2004 12:50 PM

Love Your Accent¡

Readers on punctuating posts in the Fray.

What's the Point? Over in Low Concept Fray, WhiteRabbit  introduces an alternative to Josh Greenman's "sarcasm point." Rather than punctuate sarcasm at the end of a declaration, WR suggests that we…

…use the acute accent to indicate a rising tone on a syllable, the grave accent to indicate a falling tone on a syllable, and a circumflex accent to indicate a combination of both on a syllable. Precisely what these accents would indicate, of course, would depend on their precise combinations with the verbal text.

Consider the following short phrase as an illustration:

Oh, réally? (genuine surprise)
Oh, rèally? (distaste)
Oh, rêally? (sarcasm)

The beauty of this system is that no other punctuation marks as such would have to be added to English in order to bring out such distinctions of meaning. There would be some confusion, at first, with the tonal accents that some loan words from French (like blasé) still carry, but we could solve that problem by dropping the French-derived accents.

Yet another way to stick it to Old Europe. 

Mosquitoes on the Windshield: Grudgingly, both Ex-Fed and The_Slasher-8 come to Alberto Gonzales and — by extension — the White House's defense in response to  Dahlia Lithwick's characterization of the presumptive AG as "plumber" and torture defender. Here, Ex-fed sheds some light on the entirety of Gonzalez's notorious "torture memo." And here, S-8 expresses "sympathy for the devil":

Much as I hate to say anything that can be construed as a defense of this morally bankrupt promoter of torture, anyone who thinks the AG of the United States is ever much more than a blocking back for the President is out of their mind.

The AG has two jobs: to prevent The Boss from being indicted/honestly investigated/whatever and everything else. What, you thought Janet Reno was nominated for her crime-fighting background? Bobby Kennedy? Ed Meese? If the criterion is honesty and competence, well yeah, there were better choices than any of these people. But Gonzales is hardly the first yes-man to be put into this office.

S-8 reminds liberals that…

It remains a fact that Alberto Gonzales made one of the great denunciations of the last ten years when he wrote, for the Texas Supreme Court, that a Priscilla Owen anti-abortion ruling was the worst case of judicial activism he had ever seen. For a conservative justice to say that took some stones.

Joe_JP responds to S-8:

Your post has a certain flavor to it that supposes even small victories, including somewhat less offensive hacks, is probably impossible. This is not true, since there are just too many appointments, decisions, and so forth for even this administration to win them all.

And fozzy brings up an interesting point — that the "AG is just going the way much of the [legal] profession is" — here

An ipod Christmas: Check out IOZ's recommendations for your yuletide soundtrack hereKA9:45 a.m.


Wednesday, December 22, 2004.

Rolling Back the Odometer: Is General Motors' financial outlook a clunker? That's the effect of Daniel Gross'Moneybox column, and MarkWade has a theory of his own:

I'd like to offer my guess: creative accounting

We've seen how Hollywood studios do it, but how do the boys in Detroit cook the books? According to MW, here's how it works:

Let me offer this quick and ugly example. Auto company makes car for $28,500 and sells it for $30,000 at zero percent interest for 36 months. The value of the zero interest incentive is rightly considered to be a marketing cost and should be factored into the cost of the automobile using present value calculations…

At a low interest rate assumption, say 3%, the present value of this incentive would be about $500. Therefore an additional $500 of "Marketing Costs" would be added to the sale and is then used to reduce the face value of the loan as it is transferred to the finance company. So the finance company now has a loan on their books at $29,500 and a payment stream for the $30,000 at zero percent, yielding the 3% as laid out in the beginning of the paragraph. Auto company makes $1,000 at the point of sale. Finance company makes $500 during the life of the loan.

Now let's say the accountants come in with a high interest rate assumption for the value of the zero percent marketing cost. At an 8% assumption, the "Marketing Cost" then becomes about $1,200. Loan goes onto finance company's books at $28,800. The automotive company now makes only $300 from the sale of the car and the finance company makes $1,200 during the life of the loan.

All present value accounting is essentially guesswork that can be manipulated by adjusting the interest rate assumption higher or lower according to whatever suits the company's purpose best, within the bounds of reason. Keep that in mind the next time you see an auto company report $5 billion in profits and pay next to nothing in profit sharing.

Spin your wheels in Moneybox Fray here.

Open Secrets in the Fray: Slate Cultural Editor, Meghan O'Rourke, explores how Canadian author Alice Munro "captures perfectly … a bare resignation, a confrontation with truth that lends a dark precariousness to the tidy denouements so often staged in short fiction" in her most recent short story collection. There's some discussion in the piece as to how Munro walks the tightrope between "conventional realism" and faddish "postmodern experimentalism." Is Munro's style — elaborate, plotty melodrama — facile and "stagy"? Fray literary resident, DemiMundane weighs in with her own read on Munro:

I happen to like Alice Munro and don't begrudge her a bit of contrivance or gimmickry. Short stories, as Borges has said, are more like compressed novels, whose five-hundred-page mechanics must be sketched within ten or fifteen pages.

Yet while I understand that Megan O'Rourke is mounting a defense of Munro here, I didn't quite understand what she means by "The problem is that we're so accustomed to realism we bridle at Munro's insistence that storytelling like this has lessons of its own." Again, I would refer the reader to, among others, Borges, another writer whose loose affiliation with reality might be condemned in some momentarily fashionable circles. The fact that there is a "[strong] contemporary bias toward realism in short fiction" doesn't address the fact that Munro is writing against the backdrop of a much larger panorama of short-story writing and writing styles. Viewed within the narrow confines of any individual (and undoubtedly passing) trend, anybody's writing has a pretty good chance of not measuring up.

For an excellent illumination of "Tricks" (spoiler alert), the centerpiece story in Munro's collection, read DM's entire post hereKA8:55 a.m.


Sunday, December 19, 2004

Fred Kaplan's latest account of what went wrong with missile defense during a recent Pentagon test caused lots of eye-rolling, with most fraysters practically accepting as a given the overtly political (rather than military) reasons for the program's ongoing existence.

Drawing an interesting analogy to the French and their Maginot line during World War II, wewhite concludes that the success or failure of the program is less important than the complacency and "sloppy thinking" it encourages. Despite his disillusionment with the program, HawkEye defends the concept of missile defense as rooted in historical precedent: "The British started it in World War II (along with the Bomb Squad). Germany was firing V1 Rockets at the time.... the Buzz Bombs. The RAF was tasked with shooting or knocking them down along with Antiaircraft Artillery." 

Arlington2 ends his list of alternative doomsday scenarios not addressed by missile defense with a generous offer:

Well, the SDI system works as it was intended to work.

That is, it provides defense contractors with a two or three decade development and deployment phase to set up a system that will defend against Soviet ICBMs. Or Chinese ICBMs. Or ICBMs from any country loony enough to launch one from its own soil. As long as that soil is far enough away to require a high trajectory and at least 20 minutes or so of flight time required to detect, verify and lock on to the target.

It won't defend against a cheap, makeshift, short range missile launched from a cargo ship sitting 50 miles off New York. Or Florida. Or California. Or... Well, you get the point. We have so many populated areas sitting on so many miles of coastline that an adversary could choose one of the less obvious targets, such as Charleston or Boca Raton, and still kill tens of thousands.

That's how terrorism works, by the way. Don't try to kill everyone. Just kill as many as it takes to send the nation into a spasm of panic and fear. Judging by our response to the 9/11 attacks, it doesn't take much.

Want to run down some of the other things against which SDI is useless? A dirty bomb. A suitcase bomb. A cargo container bomb. A FedEx bomb. Anthrax. (Remember Anthrax? The administration doesn't, judging by the progress of the investigation into the anthrax attacks.) Poisoning water supplies. Stinger missiles. Suicide truck bombers like Tim McVeigh. The list goes on.

Yep. Eighty billion would be better spent reinforcing security in areas where an attack is more likely. That is, if you actually believe the tab for this foolishness will only be $80 billion. If you do, I have a nice 1974 Pinto I would let go for only 20 grand.

Seconded by etjw here, Mackinactroll agrees that it is essentially a big boondoggle for military contractors. Alaska resident norockets writes in to protest the federal largesse of which her own state has been the recipient as a result of missile defense-related appropriations.

According to sorokahdeen, missile defense has ossified into conservative dogma beyond any rational assessment of its viability:

It's been an inexplicable conservative obsession for twenty years and with the economics of joy presiding in the White House and both Houses, no expense and no number of technical setbacks will work to dissuade them. Why should anyone even imagine it was when as recently as 2001, within a week of the 9/11 attacks, some conservative in an expensive suit stood up on his hind legs before the camera and announced that Islamic suicide hijackers with box-cutters, were proof positive of the need for a ballistic missile defense.

The stakes are high and the sense is thin. Missile defense that wouldn't work against an insane, massive Russian missile strike, could, just possibly, conceivably work in twenty years against a suicidally foolish attack by a Kim Jong-Il, or an Ayatollah with two nuclear-tipped, copies of Chinese cruise missiles and a demon-driven need to actually fire them--after granting us a week's notice ahead of time--instead of, say, sending just the warheads to the U.S. in a shipping container.

Missile defense is not a rational policy, it is a religious rite; an indestructible bugaboo given life, in part, by having a succession of governments made of people who have spent too much time praying and too-little in the contemplation of mathematics and engineering. The kind of people who, like Reagan, could be told that engineers could make possible the equivalent of an Apollo mission hundreds or thousands of times, in an emergency using equipment and systems that were untested, pretty much by definition. If, like Reagan, you could ever once start believing in something like that, you were probably not going to stop--and neither would your ideological descendants.

Missile defense isn't going to go away and it isn't going to die.

if it can be understood at all, it can only be seen in the context of something which obsession has given value that transcends any practical real cost. When you think of missile defense, you have to think in terms of the Children's Crusade, or of the Roman Senator who inserted into every speech the words 'Carthage must be destroyed'--it involves the inversion of reason and logic: a situation where all the setbacks and the horrid costs only mean you have to try harder and spend more.

bluescribbler sums up the same sentiment with the more succinct expression "Faith Based Missile Defense."

In light of my final day as guest FrayEditor05 (at least for now), I wish to give special thanks to:

all the residents of moneybox, on whom I could faithfully depend many a late night for mention-worthy Fraywatch material;

MaryAnn for her stewardship of the Poems fray;

modicum, to which I would like to award a star, with Kevin's blessing, for his consistently insightful and thoughtful posts;

run75441 for his keen eye and recommendations;

Tempo-the-Exile for being a self-appointed safety monitor and Fray vigilante;

biteoftheweek for acting graciously;

EnsleyHill for throwing me a farewell party in BOTF.

That cascading thread actually kinda looks like a big party streamer. AC11:24pm


Saturday, Dec. 18, 2004

An unusually wonkish topic — Social Security reform — was all the rage this week, with Fraysters subliminally connecting the dots between Timothy Noah's article on the Bush administration's deficit evasion and Henry Blodget's enumeration of investor foibles.

Some long-term thinkers prove that it's not just a concern for the geriatric crowd. Thirtysomething Keifus is already worrying about the looming crisis for his generation when the expected shortfall hits in 40 years.

run75441 has lots to say in general and more specifically about the Congressional Budgeting Office arithmetic, offering a detailed analysis here. Elsewhere, he offers Social Security factoids based on the recent Paul Krugman article in The New York Times. In a third post, run75441 gives a helpful historical primer:

In 1935, after the Great Depression had wiped out the savings of millions of Americans. As a whole the nation faced having millions of it's elderly living in poverty with no place to turn. Over ½ of America's elderly had no means to support themselves after retirement. Franklin D. Roosevelt through Congress put together The Social Security Act creating a social insurance program ensuring that workers would have a source of income when they retire. Even today barely half of the work force has retirement plans. Social Security provides a secure basic income for as long as the retirees live. Two of three beneficiaries receive ½ of their income from Social Security. For 1 out of every 5 seniors, it is their sole source of income.

and a list of recommended reforms:

.  Aliens work in the US for 10 years and go back to their countries to collect it at 62 or 66. Change the limit to 20 years or change what can be received after 10 years.

· The age limit can be accelerated to 67 or even higher; but keep in mind, the average age of a black man is 67 and you may disenfranchise a large percentage of them.

· Change from a Wage Index for increases to a CPI Index even though it will not keep pace with the costs to live.

· Raise the limit from $87,500 to $200,000 and the rate paid in at the 35% bracket. Graduated percentages can be considered at a lower level also.

· Consider taking today's SS and Medicare surplus and investing it in equities that pay at 4% rather than Treasury Securities to push out the year when we need the "loaned" money back from General Funds. It is about time we realize the "real" deficit.

· Increase the rate for individual and company by ~ 9/10ths of 1%. This will take care of benefits in 2042 but the funds loaned to General Funds will still have to be repaid.

· The economic growth Rate used to calculate these years was ~2%. It has been higher.

· Put all state and government workers under Social Security.

· Place a limit on what Senators and Representatives can receive in Retirement Benefits.

Similarly, PhxJustice thinks some common sense measures could be just the thing.

modicum proposes an exhaustive toolkit for SS reform, with this perspective on the economic and philosophical purpose of the program:

Looking at the core concept of Social Security, it is really two programs in one. One, an entitlement for those unable to fend for themselves. We settled whether we believe in this with the New Deal and Great Society; clearly, we do not wish to return to the days of the elderly starving or begging for subsistence or, more contemporaneously, being entirely dependent for their well-being on their children. Two, either a retirement plan or a component of one for those who could have afforded to fund a different form of plan if given the option … to what extent are we willing to divide the program into a retirement plan for those who can afford to save toward retirement and who maintain good health and good luck throughout, vs. an entitlement for those who are incapable or unlucky?

bang3x takes aim at the rhetoric of privatization:

Bush wants it "privatize[d]." The mantra "selective investment" is just bait. "Privatization" means companies with close ties to the power-that-be, after the likes of Halliburton, Carlyle Group, Enron or AARP are to be the company of choice, without bidding, to be the manager of such tremendous amount of money. And since it is a private company, don't expect that the FDIC would guarantee your money put into it." Meaning, your money is at the mercy of these investment companies and their very highly paid CEOs. "Privatization" of SS like that of energy and gas puts you at the mercy of profiteers and price manipulators. Indeed, "privatization" is very highly profitable for the already rich, and very questionable for the small investors.

As Krugman points out in the aforementioned article, The Cato Institute recently dropped the term "privatization" from its literature on Social Security reform and has substituted "choice." Their proposals are outlined here.

Finally, MisterWrite gleefully sees landmines for President Bush in taking on America's graying population. AC12:07am


Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2004

Surfergirl, Medical Examiner, and Jurisprudence all struck a strange synergy this week in their simultaneous focus on the obsolescence and mild absurdity of intellectual property law in the United States. Dana Stevens talks TiVo and trademarks; Amanda Schaffer wants medical research underwritten by public funds to be … public; Rod Smolla downloads his thoughts about Napster and copyrights here.

Grammar geeks will appreciate quijano's criticism of the " noun/verb" distinction used to determine trademark dilution:

Unfortunately for International Trademark Association lawyers, their "adjective only" rules conflict with, well, the English language. Everyone is aware of the propensity of words to slip into and out of different roles, different parts of speech (as Watterson memorably put it, "Verbing weirds language"). But this isn't just a symptom of poor education or reliance on jargon; instead, it's part of how isolating languages (like English) work. Google "zero derivation" to learn more.

On the issue of trademark dilution, the holders obviously have the right to protect their interests. But their insistence on defining how these trademarks are used grammatically is ignorant and their goal impossible. It is akin to attempting to enforce other arbitrary, non-English based grammatical rules ("don't split infinitives," "don't end a sentence with a preposition") with the force of law.

destor23 responds with this anecdote:

Of course, they can't enforce it, they just send out stupid letters to publications. I was once sent a letter, based on a piece I'd written, that claimed people can't "go rollerblading" but rather, "go inline skating on rollerblade brand inline skates." Letter gets crumpled up and tossed. Seriously, what are they gonna do about it?

taigaintucson sends out a classifieds query for the job of trademark violation enforcer here, while Schadenfreude, in a rare display of emotion, confesses her jealousy of surfergirl's journalism gig. 

In a free-wheeling treatise inspired by the Napster debate, Drathan waxes philosophical about the nature of information in the age of the Internet:

Information is a very interesting form of energy. Unlike electrical, kinetic, or nuclear energy, [it] grows when shared and dies when locked. ...

This neatly explains Napster, Grokster, etc. The Information Energy seeks low-resistance, wide-distribution conductors. ...

China can raise a firewall, but it cant block blogs. It will learn to block blogs, but then something else will get through. The Court may ban Grokster, then something else will pop-up. Its the nature of information. It cant be held captive. ...

If I was the movie industry, I would not fight the change, I would embrace it and squeeze juice out of the new paradigm. ...

"But how do you embrace a bunch of pirates ripping off my work?" the media asks? And its a darn good question. Specially if we rephrase it: "How do I embrace MILLIONS of people interested in my work?"

and offers a subsequent elaboration of his main points:

Society has built many props around the nature of information (like the copyright laws, the print, the FCC (!!?)), but only the props that help information achieve its core mission (to spread) will succeed. The net has changed several paradigms and because of it, some props (once again, copyright included), no longer serve their core mission, but the opposite. Natural, evolutionary forces will force these props to adapt or die. (These "evolutionary forces" may take the form of a court desicion, or may take the form of a new grokster, or market forces, or a movie studio that releases a whole movie to the net for free, etc).

Suggesting that legal definitions of ownership are essentially arbitrary, Thrasymachus zeroes in on Smolla's analogy to airspace law:

If the courts and legislature had decided to uphold the airspace rights of landowners along heavily trafficked routes, then those rights would have been worth millions upon millions of dollars, and a pilot's decision to fly over a line of individual plots from (say New York to Chicago) without paying for the rights would have been considered an egregious and inexcusable act of trespassing and theft, depriving those landowners of money that would have rightfully been theirs.

By the same token, copyright theft is only "theft" because the law makes it so. The "theft" of one's copyright is no more inherently harmful than the "theft" of one's airspace. It's not like a finger is chopped off, or like any physical thing in the universe is altered by the performance of the act. It's a question of rights, and who has them, under law.

By contrast, TheRanger considers airspace a lousy example for the point Smolla is attempting to make.

Denisov criticizes Smolla's argument for its ahistorical approach to technology:

Smolla points to a generation gap—that kids know that stealing a cd from the store is wrong, but are unable to recognize that copying an album is wrong. However, people of all ages have copied songs and albums, not simply of a particular generation. If we go back a generation, people copied songs off the radio rather than buy the single; people recorded tapes of the album for their friends. [This fact] goes against his thesis of there being simply the law, the technology being irrelevant…

Smolla's argument rests on two ideas: 1) the technology doesn't matter, whether it be P2P or server-to-peer, the crime matters. Either the courts and record companies have been inconsistent, or the technology does matter, because then anyone whoever taped a song off the radio could be sued, 2) any P2P program has an inherent possibility for misuse—"everyone knows" that, except, well, no, they don't know that.

and offers this prediction:

Having said that, the record industry will probably win this for the same reason so many tech-related lawsuits have been won for the wrong side—judges of this age group know absolutely nothing about the nuances of tech and tech related issues. File trading will be be branded illegal, and just like any other activity declared illegal, young people everywhere will immediately stop doing it.

On a related note, helios gets downright giddy about the transformative potential of open access databases. MutatisMutandis points out the negative effects of poor access to medical research on the pharmaceutical industry here.

science_chick agrees that Schaffer's heart is in the right place but quibbles with the specifics. mav62, a medical research consultant, registers these thoughtful objections to the crusade for free public access:

1) The usefulness of these articles for the general public is limited. These articles are not written for the lay person. They contain technical language and complex statistical concepts that frankly are beyond the uninitiated. While the articles are all peer-reviewed, there still can be significant drawbacks to the study design that a casual reader would fail to appreciate. Someone looking for information on the latest research on a medical condition would be much better off reading summaries of research by someone who could put it all in an appropriate context.

2) Almost all peer-reviewed articles are already available for free in abstract form online. Most journals now require complete abstracts with a purpose, methods, results, and conclusion section. Lay people can receive much of what they would need to know from an abstract.

3) Asking authors to pay for the privilege of being published could put a serious damper on manuscript submissions. Large research institutions would probably break even by saving on journal subscriptions. However, contrary to your article, a lot of medical research does not originate with large institutions, nor is it all funded with government grants. A lot of research is conducted by private-practice physicians at their own expense. Asking them to spend an additional $1,500 to publish their work may persuade many to forgo research altogether. That would be bad for everybody, because a lot of good innovative clinical research would never get done. It would be especially bad for me, because I would be out of a job.

And there is nothing more sobering than realizing how technology could eliminate your professional raison d'être. AC9:43 p.m.