Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Plutonic Relationship


It isn't you -- it's me. But I hope we can still be friends.

I minored in astronomy in college, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The subject's appeal to me was fueled by the tantilizing prospect of other intelligent (or intelligent) life in the universe. SETI was a hot topic a generation or so before SETI@Home made us all universe scanners and way before Aricebo graduate Jodie Foster made Contact -- or did she? -- with a race that also liked TV too much. The prospect that we are not alone and the seeming inevitability, a mere half-dozen years after "Star Trek" got cancelled, of long-distance human space travel was enough for me to read astronomy books even on school breaks.

Long after my academic days ended we did in fact find evidence of life, or at least evidence of evidence life, right here in our own solar system. That was cool, but fosilized remains of microbes and places water might have been doesn't pack much dramatic punch.

There is, on the other hand, something ironically sensational when a planet is voted off the island. Here is this, well, thing out there now that many of us have ever only known as a planet and it isn't any more. Just the best-known ice cube in space.

This is going to take some getting used to. But maybe we can turn this into a learning opportunity. I'm sure the many mnemonic devices teachers have used to help students remember the order and names of the planets will just need a little tinkering, and maybe in the process we can improve them.
  • My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas
Well, pizza isn't very good for you anyway. We should make no references to fast food which, by the way, shouldn't be served in schools. Or soda. How about "My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nectarines?" Gives fruit a plug. Too bad we can't slip in "five servings".
  • Merlin’s Very Extravagant Mother Just Sent Us Ninety Parrakeets
Don't hang out with people named "Merlin." And what the heck are we supposed to do with 90 birds? Gee, thanks. Perhaps we should discourage the trade in exotic animals and give Merlin's mom a personality makeover when we re-write this one. Let's go with "Merlin's Very Extravagant Mother Just Seems Utterly Normal"
  • Mother Very Early Made John Some Unusually Nice Pies
OK -- knocking mom and pie and moms who make pie is a no-no. And they are said to be unusually nice pies. And she got up very early to make them. And my name is John. But we have to draw the line. "Mother Very Early Made John Some Undercooked Nachos" Well, that brings us back to fast food. And it sounds like mom had been drinking. Let's stick a pin in that one and move on for now.
  • My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets
This one is a total loss.

Some of this will be easier. For example, songs that feature the planets could probably just be shortened, like this one, sung to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell".
Saturn has great rings.
We wondered what they were,
Now we know they're blocks of ice
which we saw as a blur.
Ummm ... when was this ditty written? Oh well. It continues:
With atmospheres that swirl
& wispy white clouds too
Uranus and Neptune
are so cold that you'd turn blue.
You'd turn blue. Yeah. That'd be your big problem.
Pluto's last in line.
It's farthest from the Sun.
It's small and cold and icy too.
To land there won't be fun.
Well kid, you won't have to fret that one any more. Would all the planets in the solar system please take one step forward -- not so fast there, Pluto!

I'm guessing my my period of adjustment will be relatively painless, though perhaps less so for others. Pluto doesn't come up in coversation much anymore, and probably a lot less starting tomorrow when it gets stopped at the door of the planet union hall.

But pity nineplanets.org, which is the top hit when you Google "Pluto". They are so going to need to get a new domain. And eightplanets.org is so taken.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Activism vs. the Rule of Law

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, who has ruled that the
government's warrantless wiretapping program is unconstitutional


Bush says anti-wiretap ruling ignores reality

"Those who herald this decision simply do not understand the nature of the world in which we live," Bush told reporters at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Md. "This country of ours is at war and we must give those whose responsibility it is to protect the United States the tools necessary to protect this country in a time of war."

Does this administration believe that the courts should strictly construe the Constitution as the Founding Fathers would have, and leave legislating to the Congress, or does it believe that judges should at least on some occasions allow social factors to influence decisions that would then not be strictly, obviously or entirely based in Constitutional law?

This president has frequently espoused a philosophy that judicial appointments be limited to people who would not legislate from the bench. He has even applied that test to nominees for the US Supreme Court who, as Justices, not judges, have it in their job descriptions to be the final word on all federal laws, many state laws and what the US Constitution means in all contexts.

In his first public statement about court's finding that the NSA wiretapping program was unconstitutional, the president seemed to say not only that the country needs the program in its arsenal but that it is a matter about which there can be no informed doubt. Fair enough. That argument has been made about many matters of social policy before the courts, albeit from the other end of the political spectrum, and every court in the land has probably employed "reality"-based arguments to reach conclusions critics then deride as activist.

The president is entitled to appeal to common sense. To remain consistent, however, he needs to demonstrate how this time common sense is in keeping with original intent or at least the will of Congress.

But listen to the appeal. "... we must give ..." (emphasis added) the president powers commensurate with his awesome responsibilities. Is this a rhetorical slip, acknowledging that the powers he asserts are not inherent, but granted and therefore discretionary? Why ever deviate from a message which says that the Constitution grants the executive powers that no court or Congress can deny and take every opportunity to enumerate them? And why are these remarks directed to "thosw who herald this decision" rather than the court itself, if public opinion ought to have no bearing on what a bench hands down?

Should not the message of this president be -- and only be -- that he has power which he is duty bound to exercise on our behalf?

I am not sure that the sort of wiretapping in question is necessarily wrong, in part because so little is publicly known about it. But I also don't understand why 72 hours isn't enough time to play catch-up with the FISA court, since the administration's chief argument about not seeking warrants is the need for dexterity. If three days isn't always enough I'm sure Congress can be prevailed upon to extend that time to whatever over-taxed Justice Department lawyers need to comply and also eat and sleep and see their families.

But I have heard no cogent arguments that support the administration's basic contention that no oversight, or only internal oversight, is necessary and that in some instances any oversight would make the United States less safe. I am open to hearing one: I would like to be able to make up my mind on the merits, but until then it seems all I have to go on is the quality of the arguments on peripheral issues as evidence of what the parties actually believe.

So when the president appears to use an argument that he has in the past categorically rejected in other contexts, that is not a good omen.

Monday, August 7, 2006

Truth & (Citizen) Journalism, 101

The worst thing that can happen to a news organization happened to the one where I used to work over the weekend: Reuters published a doctored photo of Beirut, depicting damage from an Israeli air raid. They got 2,000 emails and also discovered, from another reader's observations, that the same photographer had altered at least one other image that they previously published.

So, on the most sensitive story in the most sensitive arena in the world – you hear the word ”tinderbox” a lot on TV these days -- Reuters is forced to defend itself against lots and lots of people who already think that it in particular and MSM in general is biased. When I was there the complaints from readers ran pretty even that Reuters was biased in favor of the Arab and Persian nations in the region and/or the Palestinian cause and biased in favor of Israel. Sometimes readers would look at the same image or read the same story and come to opposite conclusions. It comes with the territory, no pun intended.

But this is an actual offense – “proof” as it were – and, as important people at Reuters are saying now, a lot, I hear: reputations are hard to win and easy to ruin. I have no personal knowledge of the situation but know as best I can that suggestions of institutional bias against my old company are just absurd. Reuters endeavors to be so unbiased that this stance sometimes itself invites controversy. Anybody remember that line about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter? That was in the Reuters style guide, intended to beat into every journalist’s head that some words cannot be used without de facto taking sides.

Of course, it was last articulated in the context of the 9/11 attacks, so that subtle message, well, kinda got lost.

But the point is that credibility is the only value a news organization possesses to distinguish itself from people spreading stories. There is no reason to believe me when I say I saw something but when the New York Times quotes me saying I saw something that is an important endorsement which a reader believes only because the reader, in general, believes the New York Times.

It’s disturbing when a news organization allows a falsehood to be published but it is an aberration and almost certainly due to carelessness or some other departure from institutional rigor intended to prevent that sort of thing, and sometimes because of procedures whose consequences weren’t completely appreciated when devised. But no company in the trust game can hope to last one extra day when trust is questioned. Just ask Arthur Anderson.

What this all means to me is that the story is somewhere else. Reuters, along with many other MSM companies, has embraced the evolution of citizen journalism from what I consider an odd position: that since, for example, no journalists were where the Asian tsunami hit or where the Concorde crashed, and non-journalists were, with cameraphones and video cameras, then non-journalists with journalistic tools, and access to a printing press (blogs), must be accepted as legitimate competitors to journalists.

I regard empowered citizen journalists as forces to be reckoned with, but I do not believe these forces are necessarily good. The reason seems self-evident: there is zero expectation of truthfulness from Joe Blogger or Sarah Cameraphone and they have nothing to lose by lying or falsifying -– and possibly even a great deal to gain by spreading falsehoods. There is a 100% expectation of truthfulness from journalists working for news organizations, as there should be, and a journalist who violates that trust is fired and branded for life. Just ask Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair or, now, photographer Adnan Hajj, all of whose 920 images were expunged from the Reuters photo database within hours of his being fired.

This imbalance seems obvious, as does the trivialness of the truth that journalists tend never to be at the scene of a disaster or breaking story – OK, there was the Hindenburg -- and sometimes a non-journalist is. We used to call those people “sources” and tried to make sure they could actually vouch for what they said they saw before we put them in a story. Now they are competitors, with equal rights to my attention, as a consumer of news? Because they have the power to publish themselves, I, as a packager of news, should be in a rush to publish them?

Citizen journalism should be a big topic with Big Media, but not because it needs to get in on the action or risk being thought of as even more dowdy. Big Media should care because it potentially undermines journalism, which I believe is to accurately report things of interest without taking sides. The goal is to keep everyone honest by being an entity that everyone can trust when it says something, no matter what it says. There is a clear difference between believing someone because of what they say and believing what someone says because of who s/he is and it only benefits partisanship to blur the distinction.

A public which cannot distinguish between journalists who know they will be fired and never work in the business again for lying and news organization that know they will be sold for scrap for tolerating such things, and people who might lie to get 15 minutes of fame, or shade a story to advance a cause, is exactly what the schemers and evil-doers of the world want. The world has already seen "journalists" under contract from people with agendas and bloggers hired as bloggers by people with agendas.

The brisk pace of technological change may be advantageous to people with an agenda, and there may be nothing that anybody can do to stem that tide. But the people with the most to lose for themselves and, frankly, for the rest of us -- they are, by the way, the people whose obligation it is to defend the institution of honest broker of facts and information -- should not be laying down rose petals on the road to anarchy.