Category Archives: rant

Call it the Dvorak Gambit

It the section called “Why Bold Works,” this blog post about why you should be bold in your (blog) statements goes on to say…
  • You become an expert. This will be a controversial assertion, most likely, but I’m speaking from experience. If you talk about the same topics as everyone else, but you say it in a bolder way, over time you will begin to be see (sic) as an expert on the topic. Not only will you get people talking about you and linking to you and Digging you, but your credibility will go up. People will start to call you a “productivity guru” or an “SEO expert” or a “fitness guru”.
  • This immediately made me think of John Dvorak, who for 20 years has literally used bold type to shout at his readership. He says the same things as every other technopundit, and he’s wrong just as often (probably more, though I’d argue he’s more often wrong for the right reasons, being something of a technoutopian), but since people only remember the positive–hey look, Dvorak was shouting this at us in 1998: genius!–he’s considered an expert by dint of his tone. Consider that if he was any other writer, and had chosen italics instead of bold, his editors would have beaten him about the head and neck with a red pencil and he would have come across as simply shrill (as opposed to a shrill expert).

    I wonder if the world is ready for an all-caps blog.

    By the way, I think copyblogger is a stupendously-smart blog, and I can’t manage to apply a single one of its recommendations in my blogging. I read what he says, consider it, and then feel like I need to take a shower and a Xanax. That would be blogging for the man! Man.

    Why Progressives Can’t Win

    I think this idea of Al Gore being “tainted” is right on the money (and what a wonderfully meaningful pun, that). But if Gore is tainted and Kerry is a flip-flopper, then Hillary Clinton is a ten-times ten times tainted back-flipping contortionist. From this perspective, Obama becomes the only option simply because he has no record to question and he’s not a big enough player to have attracted the really big, controversial money. But he has held public office, and as a Democrat that’s probably enough to call his integrity into question.

    The central issue here is a hypocrisy. If you’re a Republican, you can simply admit to being beholden to every special interest–energy companies, defense contractors, the religious right. Everyone knows you’re beholden to these organizations, and it’s okay because your constituency thinks these are necessary, even good, things. Gasoline good. Defense good. God good. Take money from whomever you want because you’re on “our side.”

    For Democrats, the calculus is a little different. If you take the broad view, it looks like the level of scrutiny is the same–half the people (the other half) hate your guts and assume you’re corrupt. This balances out on the other side with the left-leaning folks automatically hating the Republican candidates. So far, so good. But when you’re a Democrat, a significant portion of your own party feels the same way about you! Even the people who want to like you and feel like they have to vote for you (the other option being to not vote, or to throw your vote away on a Kucinich or a Nader) think you’re corrupt (because from the perspective of the left’s divided loyalties, you are).

    The problem is, on the left we don’t have these institutions that we trust to speak for us. We tend not to go to church and we try not to work in great homogeneous numbers for world-dominating corporations. We tend to distrust and reject “the system” because it represents a concentration of power, because it seems to embrace and embody the baser interests of the mediocre, mooing masses. By wishing for something better, and actually holding out for it, we sacrifice the present for the idealized future. By contrast, the Republicans look like video game-fueled instant gratification junkies. They see a country they want to bomb back to the stone age and they mutherfuckin’ bomb it back there–better to never ask forgiveness than to ask permission, after all. And the constituency? As long as you can make it look like you’re “winning,” and cook all the books to make the economy look stable (a junk bond-trading coke-addict’s economy looks stable until the Amex bill shows up) they’re right behind you.

    The closest we on the left have come to an alternative to this was Howard Dean. Say whatever else you want, Dean made a genuine effort to mobilized a grassroots (albeit high-tech) campaign. He cratered, of course, and then, even worse, sold out to “the man” (the party), and we could spend an entire blog debating the hows and whys and what-fors of that. But the point is, it could be done. It almost was. And from that perspective–the hope that it is possible to run a clean campaign, not beholden to powerful special interests–the political left is just as corrupt as the right for not holding itself to the same standards as its constituency.

    Crude Awakening

    I took a couple of hours last night when I should have been working and instead watched Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, part of The Sundance Channel project, “The Green.” The documentary provides a solid overview of a topic that I believe is going to be the next global warming, both in terms of the far-reaching effects and also in how ineffectually we deal with them. Like global warming, the idea of peak oil–that at some point demand will outstrip supply, that there is a tipping point beyond which we can no longer rely on oil as the central engine of our economy–has been around for years. In fact, no doubt through the efforts of various lobbies and think tanks, it’s developed somewhat of the same patina as global warming: you almost have to be a crackpot to believe in it. The weird thing is, it’s not a theory–no belief is required. The idea that a finite resource with unchecked demand will at some point become scarce and expensive is, in addition to being day one of Economics 101, just a logical fact. The only question is when. A significant portion of the movie is spent on this, and by all accounts it’s going to happen for sure within the next hundred years, most likely in the next 50, and quite possibly in the next 20. We’re already feeling the effects today, despite serious continuing efforts on the part of the oil industry (of which the U.S. government is currently a business unit) to shield us from this reality.

    I’ve blogged about peak oil in the past, and what continues to fascinate me about the prospect is that it truly represents an inversion of what we in America have come to think of as the way of the world. We believe that (and I say this because we certainly act as if) we can grow and innovate our way out of anything. This is another tautology (like the fact that a limited resource eventually runs out): capitalism demands growth. As we define it, capitalism is growth. The way to solve any problem is to work harder, make more, “leverage” our resources, get bigger, achieve economies of scale, and so on. This is what we believe. And we also tend to believe that we’ve accomplished this for the last 100 years purely through ingenuity and the sweat off our brows. In fact what we’ve been doing is living like global trust-fund kids–cashing in an inheritance to buy lots of pretty toys, have some exciting adventures, and generally engage in a whole lot of showy, meaningless, masturbatory games (a.k.a. Western culture). That inheritance, the dead relative writing all the checks, is oil. That oil represents the captured and condensed energy of thousands of years of solar radiation and millions of years of tectonic activity. That oil is not replaceable, not literally in terms of the hydrocarbons themselves, nor theoretically in terms of the energy they provide.

    I had the opportunity to bring this idea up to a real live futurist a couple of years ago. I managed to catch Bruce Sterling’s attention at the SXSW closing party, and I asked him if the “oil problem” wouldn’t begin to sort itself out after peak oil. I figured a guy who so often talks about radical change would be interested in what would happen in a world where oil prices started hitting the steep part of the hyperbola (in case the image doesn’t come quickly to mind, the hyperbola is the curve that never comes back down). He wouldn’t take the bait. So maybe even bright greens don’t want to talk about peak oil. Certainly $300/barrel crude is going to cut into the fun of building fabjects out of quick-curing polymers.

    The movie throws around some interesting, if dodgy, statistics. By far the most optimistic one is the idea that we could cover half the state of California with solar panels to provide for the current energy demands of the United States. Sounds ridiculous at first, but if you think about it, this is within an order of magnitude of the total coverage of pavement in the U.S. So if the solar energy industry grew (hey, look, we can grow our way out of this one too!) to just the size of the paving industry, we might be okay. That’s an over-simplification, of course, but it’s at least a scale we can deal with. But how long have we been laying down pavement? And unfortunately solar panels, like pavement, require a lot of petroleum to make. Crap. As the movie points out, if we tried to replace oil with the only other high-density energy source we have at the moment–nuclear fission–all the known nuclear fuel deposits would be depleted in about 20 years at current rates of growth and consumption. Double crap.

    On a technical level, I wish they had spent more time on two subjects: hydrogen and coal. As far as I’m concerned, hydrogen can never get too much debunking. We really, really need to get this straight. Hydrogen is not oil. Hydrogen is electricity. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, not a resource; it’s a medium for energy transport. You have to make (technically liberate) hydrogen, and that making represents a net consumption of energy from other sources. I don’t get how we’ve missed this, since it’s the most basic kind of thermodynamics problem. The movie does, however, explain why we’ve been sold this bill of goods called hydrogen (and also why we’ve been so willing to buy it): transportation. We’re a transportation society. Nothing happens in our society that isn’t transportation. Literally. It’s another tautology: if it doesn’t involve transportation, we don’t think of it as having happened. Unless you’re lucky enough to be sitting on the beach receiving free WiFi at the moment, if you stood up and looked all around you’d see roughly 1000 items in your field of vision. Each of those 1000 items traveled roughly 1000 miles to get to you. Each of the manufacturing and transportation system responsible for generating and delivering those items to you relies on roughly 1000 other processes of manufacturing and transportation to do their work. Somewhere between the second and third degree of separation, just the room you’re sitting in required approximately one billion miles of transportation to reify. According to the movie, greater than 95% of all transportation energy comes from oil. The reason for this is obvious: liquid fuels are the only energy sources dense enough to power modern transportation equipment. Try to imagine a wood-burning automobile or a coal-fire airplane… it’s impossible. From a political and economic perspective, this is why we need hydrogen, no matter how far-fetched and misguided the idea of a “hydrogen economy” really is. There is simply no way to maintain our economy without high-density liquid fuels. The unsuitability of hydrogen as an aircraft fuel is just one flaw in the hydrogen plan for maintaining “business as usual.” The big problem is, where do we get all the hydrogen?

    The really glaring omission, from a how-bad-is-all-this-likely-to-get perspective, is coal. I’m not sure it’s mentioned at all in the movie. This is strange because coal is exactly how we’re most likely to pad the energy budget in the short- to mid-term. It’s not dense enough for transportation, but it works “great” for generating electricity, and in a post-peak world it might even start looking “good” again for heating purposes. The reason for all those quotes is that this is a horrible idea. Even Texas has to think twice about installing new coal-fired electric generating plants; that’s how bad they are–even red states don’t want them. But ultimately we may not think we have a choice. Given the demands China and India (everyone continues to assume Africa will never get its act together enough to join the party) will put on petroleum in the next 20 years (hey, it’s a free market), I think coal is going to come to be seen as the “stay the course” approach for America’s energy problems. Coal, after all, has a strong lobby, and we have plenty of it right here in the U.S.–all you have to do is blast off the top of a mountain in West Virginia. Hell, they won’t even complain. Much. This is shaping up to be a serious problem post-peak oil. If we really do try to cushion the free-fall with coal, the environmental and human costs could be worse than what we’ve seen from petroleum.

    I have several other complaints about the movie. The tone wavers between overly-dramatic and overly-pedantic. Some of the speakers are ill-chosen. The presentation of the guy sitting in his Y2K peak-oil bunker, while perhaps cinematic, comes across as particularly undermining. Yet presumably his is the agenda most in line with the typical viewer–personal and family-level survival in the world of peak oil has to be the top priority for most of us. And yet there are two possible approaches that come out of this: sit in your bunker and let the rest of the world burn, venturing out occasionally for the bare necessities (American foreign policy in a nutshell), or, and I’m really going to think outside the box here for a second, fix the fucking problem. Unfortunately, the movie also makes the classic Casandra-style mistake: predicting doom and gloom without providing any hope for solution. This is exactly the rhetorical mode humans, perhaps Americans in particular, find least appealing–we simply can’t cope with bad news that lacks a massive dose of cognitive Splenda to cover the bitterness of reality. We shut down; we go into denial. In fact, the news has been so bad for so long that we no longer enter and leave denial: we inhabit it. Denial is the name on the door of our bunker, posted right above the sign “protected by Smith & Wesson” (I am, in fact, describing my own bunker here as well).

    I strongly recommend this movie. If peak oil isn’t on your radar, this is a good introduction. Even if you’re relatively up to speed on the idea, this movie illustrates some concrete examples of localized peak oil experiences (Texas and California for two domestic ones, but also Venezuela and Azerbaijan, which didn’t “grow past” peak oil quite as effectively–even Saudi Arabia seems to be on the down slope). I’d suggest fixing yourself a stiff drink during the opening (the whole “blood of the Earth” thing is a bit much). If it helps to get through the rest, imagine this is all happening to someone else–the average Saudi, for example, who already lives about 40% below what we consider to be the poverty line.

    Why I Continue to Hate Surveys

    Following up on my earlier post regarding the evils of polling… MSN has an article that purports to uncover the “bottom 10” worst customer service companies. If you take the list at face value, the only conclusion you can draw is that large banks and large phone and Internet companies have poor customer service. No initial surprises there. But the fact that I’m at least a part-time customer of up to seven of these companies–and that only one has stood out in my mind as having truly bad service (Time Warner)–set off some warning bells. Do they seem particularly bad at customer service simply because they have so many customers to complain about bad customer service?

    If you dig into the methodology of the survey, you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than a straight ranking, and that in fact there’s no “top 10” to go with the bottom 10. Here’s why:

    Right off the bat you have a self-selection bias inherent in asking the initial group only for bad customer service experiences and then picking the top 20. If you asked the same group for their best customer service experiences you’d likely get a substantially similar group, simply because so many people are customers of these same 20 companies.

    Zogby tried to clean it up a bit by offering a full scale of response (“excellent,” “good,” “fair,” “poor,” “not familiar,” “not sure”), but the damage is already done. In fact, by discarding the “not sure”s and “not familiar”s they actually increased the bias against large companies. This sort of downward divination can only serve to exaggerate the response biases in both groups. So this survey ends up telling you very little about what to expect when dealing with these companies, and it gives you no positive information at all, since no data was collected about good customer service experiences.

    Bottom line: Even a company with years of experience applying science to customer satisfaction research can find it challenging to come up with a robust methodology. And that’s presumably without the influence of the tabloid-style inflammatory agenda that MSN has.

    Moving On, Internet Style

    Now that the mourning is over, definitely time to move on to the self-congratulation. If you don’t want to read that piece of trash, I’ll summarize: “MSNBC: we’re so full of hot air we can toot our own horn while maintaining our 24×7 efforts to blow smoke up your ass.” It’s also worth noting that MSN redesigned their homepage at the last minute with a larger main image to “convey the magnitude” of the story, which is I’m pretty sure the ultimate Internet-era expression of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The example image they use is a bunch of people walking across a lawn, which I’ll admit has a lot more impact when you add 20 pixels of width.

    A Nation of Mourners

    The flags at the apartment complexes nearest my house are flying at half mast yet again. First let me say that I think flag flying (not to mention half-masting) by businesses is a little cynical. The only individual I ever knew who flew the flag regularly was my grandfather, and as a veteran he was certainly entitled. In fact, that was the context in which he flew it–service-backed patriotism–right down to demonstrating to me the proper disposal of a worn American flag by burning it on the old Weber (an act, which while being correct flag etiquette, has been in danger of being made unconstitutional in more recent times). The nearest apartment complex flies not only the American flag, but the Texas flag and a corporate flag (in fact, from one vantage point at a stop sign, I can see at least five flags in two complexes). Since no flag can be flown higher than the American flag (though it sometimes happens in Texas, presumably out of latent resentment regarding the fall of the Republic), this means all the flags fly at half staff–an unavoidable overkill which just makes the whole thing seem even more pandering and cynical. And since city ordinances govern the maximum height of a flagpole but apparently not their spacing nor the size of the flags flown, the overall effect is just tacky.

    It was only a couple of months ago that they raised all these flags back up after a month of mourning for Gerald Ford. At the time, a month of mourning struck me as overlong. All those flags, for all that time, it loses its impact. For a former President, I can see flying them until the inevitable “national day of mourning,” or until the person is actually laid to rest (this is, in fact, the rule for former Vice Presidents), but anything more than a week is just ridiculous. No one outside his family was actually mourning Gerald Ford’s death for a whole month. Around about week three I’d look at those flags and think “shit, did someone else die?” before remembering that we were still mourning a guy who stopped being a public figure when I was in grade school (meaning anyone under the age of 30 would have no emotional context for the man).

    Now I have to wonder how long we’ll be at half mast for the Virginia Tech victims. I understand that U.S. universities are international institutions. I understand that school shootings are a hot-button topic for us. And I imagine if you heard about this tragedy you’ve put some thought into its causes and implications. Seeing the flags at half staff the next day is certainly not going to come as a surprise. But what about tomorrow? The next day? Friday? How much is a enough? A week? Ten days? That’s a week from Friday. That doesn’t sound completely unreasonable.

    But let’s put this in perspective. Events that kill 33 Americans:

    In the U.S., drunken drivers kill more people per day than this.

    Diabetes kills this many people every four hours.

    Heart disease kills 33 Americans every 20 minutes.

    Okay, okay, that’s all statistics. We’re talking about national tradgedies, not the background noise of 21st-century life, things worth moving the flag for. If school shootings and the death of Presidents fall into this category, then what about war? Guess how long the Iraq war takes to kill 33 American soldiers at current rates? 10 days.

    So here’s the real question: why do we ever put the flag back up? The answer, of course, is in the symbolism. Even when the flag is flown at half staff, the procedure for flying it requires it to be raised to full height immediately before and after. The reason for this is so that we recognize half staff as an exception, not the rule. The occasion for it should be rare enough that it still gives us pause while reminding us that grief, especially on a national level, is a necessarily temporary condition. The height of the flag is not meant to be a national emotional barometer, but a gesture of respect. So Virginia can keep their flag down as long as they want, but ours better be back up before the end of the week.

    Web 2.0 Eats Its Own

    If you’ve been waiting to find out what happens when big-name blogs collide in the most virtually violent fashion, you can now safely exhale. Uber-geek-cheerleader (is it sexist if you mean it flatteringly? Probably, and this becomes meaningful in a moment) Kathy Sierra and Chris “Clue Train Manifesto” Locke get into a comment troll-fueled feud over sexism and anonymous harassment on the Internet. Insults are exchanged, fingers are pointed, every skulking Gollum in the blogosphere shows up in the arena, death threats ensue, eventually the cops are called in and none other than Tim “I’m the only reason geeks ever meet in personO’Reilly has to broker a ceasefire. And one of the bloggers cancels speaking appearances, locks the doors and turns off her blog. Oh yeah, and it all comes to a head on April Fools’ Day, so maybe it’s all theater, you know, to “bring up an important issue.” You really have to hope so. But I doubt it. I mean, CNN bought it.

    And speaking of CNN, of course they end with a wonderfully unintentional ironic twist:

    Female Reporter: “Even Kathy Sierra, the target of these threats, says that freedom of speech is to be preserved… the alternative is to censor and that’s not the right solution…”

    Male Reporter: “How can you threaten the ‘Cute Kitty?'”

    Female Anchor: “Poor woman, so terrifying.”

    Way to elevate the level of discourse, CNN! You have truly fulfilled your journalistic charter by diffusing my fear and outrage and letting me fall right back into my comfortable prejudices about the place of women in our society. Sexism in the blogosphere? Nothing can touch TV news.

    Also, how creepy is it that CNN has these two bloggers, embroiled in a shitstorm of accusations of online harassment, sexual predation and death threats, meet for the first time in a generic hotel room! Internet, anonymity, sex, hotel room… yeah, that’s subtle.

    Is Blogging Anti-Linearity?

    Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to read blog posts sequentially without using an RSS feed? Look at any blog–, any Wired blog, even this blog. Read the entire first page. Then try to read the next posting. None of them end with a “next” link (my blog used to, before I started using blogger). They end with “archives” or nothing. And if you click “archives,” you don’t get the next item you haven’t read; you get a repeat of the posts you’ve already read. So basically if you fall behind by a few days (or in some cases a few hours) you’re screwed. What up with that?