Reading the Times in California

In which I read the New York Times by myself on the west coast, and react to the news.

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Location: San Francisco, California, United States

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Taxation Without Representation

As the license plates in the federal capital say, DC has taxation without representation. I thought it was a joke for the first few months I was there; turns out, "Washington's lack of representation was one of the founding fathers' great pieces of unfinished business" -- we haven't gotten this right in a couple centuries?! How is it that this is still being overlooked?

The latest proposal to rectify this in the age-old war to give DC residents their constitutional rights of representation is not news to me, as I've been living in the District for a few years now. But it's still stupid.

The proposal, in case you don't feel like following the link (which will expire in 10 days, anyhow), is this: Give [the overwhelmingly liberal (we went 90% Kerry in '04)] DC a rep in the House, and balance it out with giving [the "Republican bastion"] Utah one more, too. Even it out back down to 435 in 2010, after the Census, which probably means letting Utah keep its vote.

Note that this doesn't solve anything -- DC residents get one rep (uhh, what about the Senate?), but it's cancelled out by beknighting Utah with an extra one, too. It placates some vocal advocates of the No Taxation Without Representation movement (didn't we get this over with the Boston Tea Party?), but doesn't actually address the issue, effectively declawing it.

There are reasons I've kept my residency in Wisconsin all these years. Fucking electoral college.

SATs Updated To Encourage Crap Writing

As Emily, my non-profit,-NGO-working roommate-turned-SAT-tutor (it's way more lucrative) and every high school junior knows, the SATs are coming up this Saturday. And they're not just your mother's -- or, in fact, your -- SATs, where the number 1600 was sacred -- no, they've been updated to reflect what kids have actually learned in school, and, now with the pinnacle of achievement weighing in at 2400 points, now include a writing section.

This writing section is, of course, fairly scored, and all graders read each essay carefully. This is, after all, America, where we train kids to be real good riters in our public schools.

Sigh. As the article linked above points out, essays appear to be being graded exclusively along one parameter: length. Says the reporter of Dr. Les Perelman, one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (first factual; then anecdotal):

He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

This reporter held up a sample essay far enough away so it could not be read, and he was still able to guess the correct grade by its bulk and shape. "That's a 4," he said. "It looks like a 4."

Gah. And for this -- a 25-minute writing sample that isn't even graded on reasonable parameters -- 800 points have been added to the test that determines a huge percentage of college acceptances?

Dr. Perelman's sad advice:

How to prepare for such an essay? "I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.

Wonder if Emily tells her tutees that ...

Cellphones get bigger

I recently got a new cellphone, my old one having died a glorious and ignominious death. Poking through the store to find a good replacement, I was struck with the fact that the shiny new models on the shelf seemed to be the same size -- or even bigger -- than the one I needed to replace. Doesn't Moore's Law hold for cellphones?, I think I wondered aloud.

Certainly it does. But even though, by rights, in the eighteen months since I scored my now-dead, beautiful, blue phone (and, for that matter, in the apparently six years since it was released), though the technology has gotten smaller, companise have chosen not to minimize their devices, but rather to overload them with multiple features. My new camera address book phone -- an LG VX6100, if you must know -- is at least three things in one, coming with just about all the amenities of my family's first digital camera and more: an 0.3-megapixel digital camera (complete with lenscover!); a 500-person address book; lots of features I haven't even looked at yet. And all I wanted was something to talk on that stores phone numbers!

But, that's aparently not the direction phones are going in, much to my dismay.

"This industry is in a period of incredible flux," Mr. Zander [Motorola's CEO] said recently in his office in suburban Chicago. "The big challenge for every company over the next five years is to figure out what you are and how you make money."

... And that, of course, is why i'm able to talk on my cellphone to begin with, why I'm able to blog this from an internet cafe, and why I'm not going to get what I want in a phone (minimalism): the market. Like it or not, it drives where companies are going to take this new world of communications.

It's also going to be dominated by the insane consumer. Apparently 59% of Americans have cellphones, a fact astounding to me, who got her first phone as she graduated from college, having had email and dorm phones to fill the communications need before then, and who can't really fathom what teenagers do with theirs, besides put sparkly covers on them and stick them in their painted-on, low-riding hip-huggers. (But then again, this blogger can't figure out what teenagers do with anything these days. This blogger feels old and jaded at age 24.)

Notable points from the article:

  • Apple's going to get into the market. Crap, I upgraded to an LG too soon! I want a sexy white phone to match my sexy white iPod and sexy white iBook. (Can you tell whom they snagged on their form-equal-to-function ploy?)

  • Again, the sheer number of customers: "There are 172 million mobile phone subscribers in America, or 59 percent of the population. By 2009, cellphone ownership will rise to 69 percent, JupiterResearch, a technology research company, projects."

  • "In surveys of cellphone users, respondents say there are three things they always take with them when they leave home: wallet, keys and cellphone." -- Okay, that's totally reasonable. That's what I take when I leave home. (And I'm the paradigmatic consumer, yes?) It goes on: "75 percent of cellphone owners in the United States kept their phones turned on and within reach 16 or more hours a day. And when asked if they had ever answered their mobile phones during sex, 15 percent said yes." -- Lines in the sand, people. Lines in the sand.

  • "Camera phones are common today, and many people routinely take pictures with them. But only 15 percent of people with camera phones send pictures over wireless networks." -- So stop making them come with cameras automatically, and give me a skinny, just-talk phone!

Stop quoting and start writing well!

Dowd, again, pisses me off. Today's column refers to the recent study reported yesterday that ugly children may get less attention than pretty ones from parents. Instead of playing off this and offering extra facts, as someone like Krugman (note to self: stop deifying him soon; is probably bad for health) would, she offers a few anecdotes, and then to fill in the blanks, an Eliot allusion and a Shakespeare quotation that smacks of forced intellectualism.

Useful, illuminating anecdote:

I went out once with a guy who didn't care for his mother, partly because he felt she was not attractive enough. My brother Martin, on the other hand, tells our mom how proud he was when she picked him up from grade school because he thought she was the prettiest mother.

(What does that say? That she's shallow, for dating this guy; or that she's normal, for dating someone who's shallow; or that she's normal for dating someone who's normal, in light of this study? (Same with her brother, but with fewer dependent clauses.))

Unhelpful Shakespeare quote:

But the world can be harsh. Surface matters more and more, and the world ignores Shakespeare's lesson from "The Merchant of Venice": "Gilded tombs do worms infold."

(Is what you're trying to say that these pretty children are going to be wormy on the inside, Maureen? Because that's what this quote is saying, and not the point of the rest of the article. Maybe you missed the lesson in high school where they taught that quotations are only supposed to be used to illuminate something you're saying, not just to be thrown in to give you extra scholar points.)

Grating, totally egregious Eliot allusion:

A beauty bias against children seems so startling because you grow up thinking parents are the only ones who will give you unconditional love, not measure it out in coffee spoons based on your genetic luck.

Woah! This was used in the original to illustrate a life of experience, loneliness -- NOT of meting out affection, or of anything else, for that matter. It was not transitive. This is exactly the sort of thing I love in the Times when done well (e.g., a caption from a picture of a fashion show sometime this last year: "I shall wear my trousers rolled." Ha.), but do not expect to see abused within its pages, and deplore when I do! AAArrrgh!

Really, there is no point to her column. She talk about rotisserie chicken ovens, and restates the facts of the study and its article. Just what is she paid to write, again?

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Words, word, words!

I'm devastated that William Safire has stopped (as of last December, IIRC) writing a regulary Op-Ed for the Times. I have to now resort to getting my fix in the Sunday magazine. His column there of today is not the most objectively interesting subject matter -- he talks about the "blurbosphere," or the world of literary peer review and back-patting -- but it's a mandatory read, if only to hear the following words (and phrases) in context:

  • blurbosphere
  • hagiography
  • firmament
  • fulsome
  • oxymoronic
  • "prepublication pool of prevarication"
  • panned
  • "espionage tradecraft"
  • exegesis

He ends with titling an ongoing war of mine the "Language Snobs against Language Slobs", and intelligently admonishes:

Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.