Thursday, November 29, 2007

Just one

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Voter pledges

What would you promise to do in order to be allowed to vote? Would you, for example, sign a loyalty oath to a political party? In Virginia, the government will require voters in the upcoming Republican primary to sign a statement saying “I, the undersigned, pledge that I intend to support the nominee of the Republican Party for president.” This is fundamentally wrong.

The pledge can be interpreted in many ways. It could be read as a statement of current intent with no promise of future support. It could also be read as a promise of future support. That future support could be interpreted as donations of time or money to the Republican candidate, or simply a vote in the presidential election for the Republican candidate. How strong does your intent have to be? If you change your mind after the nominees are chosen, or after you learn more about the candidates or the parties or the world, or simply after thinking more, have you broken your signed pledge? If you believe that Romney will be the Republican nominee and you intend to support him, but you would be unwilling to support Giuliani if he is the Republican nominee, can you honestly sign that pledge? Different people will understand the pledge differently, and indeed the linked article offers two different interpretations just a few sentences apart. What is certain is that the pledge will pressure at least some people toward voting for the Republican nominee in the general election, because some people will take what they are signing seriously.

Worse, that pressure will feel like it is coming from the government, rather than from a political party. While a political party is not required to follow anything resembling a democratic process for choosing a nominee, the Republican party in Virginia has chosen to use the state’s electoral process. That electoral process should clearly follow some basic principles in a consistent fashion, so that voters can be assured of the fairness and integrity of the electoral process. Coercion and bias in the state’s electoral process is incompatible with democracy. When the state requires voters in a party’s primary to sign a pledge that they will vote for the party’s nominee in the presidential election, that is coercive. When the state does that only for one party’s primary and not for the other’s, that is both coercive and biased.

The coercion can easily be reinforced after the primary by reminding primary voters of their pledge. Records of who voted in a primary are public. Sample push poll: “Earlier this year, you signed a pledge to support the Republican candidate for president. Do you intend to vote for the Republican candidate tomorrow? [Yes] Thank you for being an honest American. Please remember to encourage your friends to vote tomorrow as well. [No] Are you aware that you signed that pledge? Are you aware that perjury is a crime?” Voter intimidation 101, made even easier by the state having required voters to sign a loyalty pledge in order to vote.

Let’s assume that it’s reasonable for a party to restrict primary voting to members of that political party. (States have different policies on this.) If I am a member of the Republican party, why should I not be able to vote in the primary even if I have no intention of supporting the likeliest Republican nominees for president? Ron Paul supporters, for example, may well realize that their guy has no chance of becoming the nominee and may not want to support anyone else. Why are they not entitled to vote in the primary? Some Republican voters may want to vote in their party’s primary for other local, state, or federal offices, but intend to vote for a non-Republican presidential candidate. Why are they not entitled to vote in the primary?

These objections don’t begin to address the question of what else voters could be required to sign in order to vote. I don’t want to go in that direction, because it might suggest that this loyalty oath is somewhere near the top of a slippery slope. This country has spent many years struggling up a difficult slope towards more free, more fair, and more open access to the right to vote. Loyalty oaths as part of the electoral process are not a small slip down that slope; they are a wholehearted leap downwards.

The two major political parties are very entrenched in our political system, and are very much majority groups. Freedom of association is usually taken to protect our right to join minority groups, but should also protect our right to register as a member of one of those major political parties without agreeing to join in lockstep with every priority of that party. Instead of respecting freedom of association, instead of recognizing the benefits of including different viewpoints, instead of reaching out to independent voters, instead of any pretense of a Big Tent approach, the Republican party is now willing to actively alienate even Republican voters who do not want to subordinate their will to the will of the party. I hope that is not a winning strategy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Visual dictionary

Visual Dictionary Online is a handy way to find the word for the thing above the part that kind of looks like a doohickey. You know, like a philtrum or a petiole.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Work holiday parties: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Does your work have a holiday party? Do you wish it did? What is your vision for the perfect work holiday party?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

8 miles from Boston

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Kamila Shamsie has written a wonderful short essay entitled “Martin Amis’s views demand a response.” Two sentences particularly stood out as being important and broadly relevant:

The failure to express outrage cannot be easily distinguished from a lack of outrage.
But in worlds without censorship, the way to respond to odious views which are given space in the press is to, well, respond!
These moral requirements cannot be satisfied by any one person. There is more we should express outrage about and more we should respond to than any of us can possibly react to, even if we were to devote all our waking time to responding. Much of a well-lived life goes beyond public discourse. Within the realm of public discourse, we should spend time envisioning and describing the world we actively want, not just the world we don’t. But if each of us heeds Ms. Shamsie’s call to speak up, our collective voice could be strong enough to push back, express outrage, and respond.

We may give thanks for many things at Thanksgiving — time with family or friends, a good meal, a holiday parade, or our own good fortune. We may help others in a soup kitchen or a shelter. We may just enjoy the day off work. I know my friends are celebrating the holiday in many different ways. I’ll start my Thanksgiving here and now. I give thanks for the freedoms we still have, and I hope for the endurance to still feel outraged by those who have taken away the ones we’ve lost and who are denying freedom to others. Above all, I hope we will all keep the courage to respond to that which outrages us, so that our failure to express outrage cannot be taken for a lack of outrage. That is how the world will improve, and that is how we will have thanks to give next year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Photo by Michael

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Expectation of privacy

In the world of law enforcement, gathering evidence that can be used in court is all about people’s reasonable expectations of privacy. Which places and situations are public, and which are private? That’s largely determined by what we all agree on as the dividing line, rather than what an individual might prefer. I’d love to consider my living room to be private, but if my living room is visible from the street then it’s not. The prisoner who doesn’t realize that his phone call to his attorney is being monitored by the warden may believe his conversation is private and protected by attorney–client privilege, but that belief isn’t sufficient. Interesting questions arise then as new technology allows police to see through walls, to track heat signatures deep inside buildings, to listen to conversations happening 100 yards away, or to monitor phone calls between people talking in their homes. At what point can we no longer have any reasonable expectation of privacy?

The government would say that time is now. From an AP story on Veteran’s Day:

As Congress debates new rules for government eavesdropping, a top intelligence official says it is time that people in the United States changed their definition of privacy.

Privacy no longer can mean anonymity, says Donald Kerr, the principal deputy director of national intelligence. Instead, it should mean that government and businesses properly safeguard people’s private communications and financial information.
Privacy means something different for urban and rural areas. We may expect that nobody can hear or see us in our homes if our homes are surrounded by fields or woods, but privacy in a city means that people pretend they cannot see and hear their neighbors. Essentially, we rely on our neighbor’s discretion with our secrets. Donald Kerr wants us all to consider the government to be just another too-close neighbor and trust in the government’s discretion.

The question of how our notion of privacy should change is an important one, and one that citizens and organizations and the government should debate. But by leaking a constant stream of news over the past several years about how much information the government is already collecting, the government does not just prove itself unworthy of our trust in its discretion. The government preempts the debate, by making it manifestly unreasonable for us to expect privacy anywhere.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Multi-channel publishing

Every asset in every medium. Every medium in every mode.

This was the foundation of the workshop last night about multi-channel publishing. Most of the workshop was a presentation of XML, semantic tagging, and options for production workflow, with this foundation that justified all the rest coming 90 minutes in when the tech guy finally sat down.

For traditional book publishers, the likely mediums are print, audio, and electronic. Each medium can have several modes: print can appear in the mode of mass-market paperback or dust-jacketed hardback or reader-printed stack of loose paper; audio — cassette or CD or mp3 player or computer speakers; electronic — e-book reader or computer screen or iPhone. The different ways of accessing any given medium have increased tremendously, and this fragmentation of access creates both headaches and market opportunities for content producers. You might have to repackage your television show for DVD, but on the plus side you get to sell DVDs.

It can be difficult to figure out all the mediums and modes that any given asset can appear in, but that process can help you figure out what your assets are. A textbook, for example, is not just a unitary asset. It’s also a set of chapters that can have value separately in coursepacks. It’s also a set of lessons within each chapter that can be used in other textbooks. It’s also a set of exercises which can be used in assessments or workbooks, and terminology which can be used in flash cards or glossaries, and examples which can be turned into recordings for a language textbook, and images which can be turned into a slide show for an art history textbook, and many other ways of slicing and dicing your assets. I worked on a language textbook some years back, and figured out that the figures could be used for transparencies and the examples could be used for audio recordings. I got there by wondering what parts of the textbook could be used for transparencies and audio recordings, rather than wondering how I could reuse the figures and examples. That process of developing a multi-channel approach to the textbook was the trigger to seeing the figures and examples as assets apart from the textbook as a whole. Every asset in every medium isn’t just about taking advantage of every market opportunity. It’s about discovering new assets which can then be repurposed.

The same can be said of XML (or any tagging system based on content rather than appearance). The process of deciding on tags for each level of your content can help you realize that your cookbook is composed of recipes, and each recipe contains ingredient lists, and there could be interesting ways to reuse recipes or even ingredient lists. As long as you use tags better than Cengage Learning’s <float-chunk>, you can go through your set of tags to see possible new levels of assets. And who knows, maybe Apple will come out with a new iFloatChunk, in which case Cengage Learning is ready with assets they didn’t even know how they had.

King’s College

Photo by Michael

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Open enrollment

Ah, the 2-hour info session in the cafeteria about next year’s health plan options. The capstone of befuddlement month.

Our health plan is switching from the Blue Cross network that covers every provider in Massachusetts to CIGNA’s Open Access Plus/Carelink network which actually uses one of the Tufts Health Plan networks in Massachusetts. They won’t tell us which one. We will have three logos on our insurance cards: CIGNA, Tufts, and Carelink. Each doctor’s office will have to guess which one applies in a fun game of three-logo Monte.

Someone asked whether a doctor who is in the Tufts network and not in the CIGNA network will be considered in-network under our insurance. The CIGNA rep said yes. A few minutes later, someone asked whether a doctor needs to be in both the Tufts network and the CIGNA network to be considered in-network. The CIGNA rep said yes. So the person who asked the first question pointed out that those answers could not both be true. The CIGNA rep shrugged his shoulders. Somehow I suspect the 200 employees in the cafeteria failed to achieve health plan enlightenment.

A number of people pointed out that the options for finding out whether doctors are in-network—calling the doctors, calling CIGNA, using the CIGNA web site, using the Tufts web site—all result in different answers. In fact, calling CIGNA a second time often results in a different answer. The stated solution was to use the printed provider directory which is not yet available. Left unstated was the fact that nothing about the current status of a provider indicates whether that provider will be in-network or not after January 1. My chiropractor is considering dropping Tufts at the start of 2008, and is contractually obligated by Tufts not to inform his patients ahead of time if he decides to do that.

We were told in this info session that we should figure out now what all of our health care expenses for 2008 will be. Apparently HR believes that if we concentrate really hard, we can discern our future illnesses and injuries and approximately what they will cost. We were told that it would be better not to have significant medical expenses in the first part of the year. Apparently HR believes that we can schedule medical emergencies. We were told that various unused funds in our health plan will roll over into 2009, but we were not told that (at least some of) these funds will only actually roll over if HR decides to offer the same plans with the same insurers in 2009. And we were told that there will be various gaps in dental coverage and prescription drug delivery, so we should try not to need any dental work in the last few weeks of 2007 or any prescription drugs in the first few weeks of 2008.

The news wasn’t all confusing. There was a very clear PowerPoint slide explaining that the retirement plan was being frozen as of January 1. No uncertainty there.

To make up for the retirement plan contributions evaporating, they are contributing 4% to a 401K. Based on your 2008 salary. Oh, by the way, and this isn’t on the handout, only if you’re still employed as of early 2009. Nothing like ending the info session with an unsubtle hint that the company will see an additional savings by firing everyone before the end of next year. That’s just the piquant touch of spite that rounds off the bitterness and bafflement with undertones of discontent. Robert Parker would definitely approve.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How trim should work

We helped friends yesterday with some finishing details in the new addition to their house, and I was once again baffled by the way trim works. Their contractor followed the standard approach today of putting up unfinished trim before the wood floors were finished and before the walls were painted. This means you can’t finish the back of the trim, and you need to carefully cut in as you finish the floors (impossible), walls (tricky), and trim (time-consuming). If you instead finish the floors and paint the walls without the trim in place, you don’t have to be as precise at the edges where they meet because those edges will be covered by the trim. And if you finish the trim before you install it, you don’t have splashes of paint and polyurethane to contend with, you can finish around the back, you can easily replace pieces where the stain doesn’t come out right, and you can apply the stain and polyurethane outdoors or in the basement or somewhere you don’t have to be careful of your new floors and walls. So there must be good reasons to do put the trim up earlier, though I don’t know what those reasons are.

Much of the time in the life of a house, trim is already in place. Our house shows no evidence of the trim being removed when walls were repainted or rewallpapered, nor when floors were refinished (ok, there’s no evidence of the floors being refinished). We are probably going to take the trim off in my office as we redo the walls, but that’s largely because we want to replace the trim. We certainly were happier working around the trim when we sanded and plastered and painted the walls downstairs. So aside from the trim already being finished, it creates all of the obstacles to easy refinishing that it creates in the first paragraph. Clearly what is needed is a new way to attach trim that allows the trim to be easily removed and reattached. If only screws with decorative heads were available. And if only the trim were finished before being put up, so that those screws didn’t wind up painted or polyurethaned into place.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Grand Canyon

Photo by Michael

Thursday, November 8, 2007

First frost

Beyond welcoming an opportunity to muse about the weather, I am influenced by the personal journals from a century or two ago which can show us how much local climates and microclimates have changed over time. Modern science is excellent at recording and analyzing numbers, so we hear a lot about air temperatures and ocean temperatures and permafrost depth. Satellite imagery has shown us that very small temperature changes over the last few decades are happening concurrently with large areas of North American greening up two or three weeks earlier in the spring. Plants are sensitive to temperature in different ways than people are, or perhaps other factors are causing this earlier greening. But little of this tells us how late the snapdragons bloom in the fall, or when the swans stop keeping sentry on the river next to us, or how long we’ll have to wait for the columbine to return. Those things we learn from notes and hints in personal journals.

This morning was the first daybreak with real frost on the ground. The more delicate blooms in our garden have shriveled overnight, but the snapdragons do not appear to be affected. It was not a hard frost last night, just enough for the plants to take notice. The low angle sun is glittering off the field, and a tree by the entrance to the field is hurling its leaf stalks at the ground (and me, and the dog) with an assertive and continuous clatter.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Notes to a young programmer

1. While zip codes in the United States are composed of numerical digits, they are not simply integers. Some zip codes start with 0. Much of New England, in fact. Do not strip out leading zeroes from zip codes.

2. If you provide search access to a database on the web, do not require the user to start each search from scratch. For example, a user searching a database of doctors in a provider network might want to check for a dozen different doctors, and might not want to enter the same home address every time.

3. When you provide search results in alphabetical order, use word-by-word alphabetical order. Freed, Albert; Freedman, John; Freedman, Thomas; Freed, Thomas; is letter-by-letter alphabetical order, and frustrates users. Especially users who only wanted people named Freed.

4. When you display states in alphabetical order, set the order based on whether you are displaying full state names or abbreviations. Maine comes before Massachusetts, but MA comes before ME.

5. Consider a database that contains records for people who are in and out of a particular set. When you allow a user to search the database by name for people who are in the set, include the people who are out of the set in a separate batch of search results. That way the user can see that the person is out of the set, rather than wondering whether the person is failing to appear in the “in the set” results because of a data entry error.

6. If you provide full web search access to a database where 2 out of 8 records in a sample contain key data entry errors that prevent them from correctly appearing in search results, allow the user to download the entire database in some universally readable format such as CSV so the user can query the database in Excel or Word (or even print it out).

Thanksgiving dinner: comments

This is a comment thread for the current poll. Is turkey the only mandatory component of a Thanksgiving dinner? Is everything else gravy, so to speak? Discussion welcome in the comments....

Monday, November 5, 2007

Saint Columbo

Photo by Michael

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Web design

The design of the front page of the website has greatly improved today, and now looks much more like the Guardian website. Updated a few days later: took only a couple of days to clutter themselves up again with a seemingly infinite number of ads, pop-ups, random images, and outside links. It is now worse than ever.

I’m supposed to be redesigning one large established site and developing a new small one from scratch, so it’s great to have new models to wander around. While I’ve been noticing news sites, I really need to find good models for two different sorts of websites: one for shopping (oriented around text descriptions rather than product images) and one for a small organization.

What sites do you find easy to navigate and pleasing to the eye?

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Noel presaging Noël

Cold, wind, and rain today. The remnants of Hurricane Noel passing through as a nor’easter, this first weekend in November, and fall is suddenly over. Tomorrow will be a brighter day, but with a different light than Friday as the sun shines through newly bare trees. A winter light to recollect today’s winter wind.

We still have a few fall tasks to complete. Wrap the azaleas and install a couple of porch windows over the screens. Find some unpasteurized cider for the porch. Change our furnace filter. But we completed the big ones: carve a pumpkin, go on a hay ride, look for the most spectacular trees, watch the football season develop and the baseball season end, partake in a cider donut and some token Halloween candy and that favorite squash soup.

Time rushes along, with Thanksgiving and Chanukah early this year. In three weeks Thanksgiving will be over, in five weeks Chanukah will be more than halfway lit, and in seven weeks we’ll be heading north for Christmas. The least we can do is forestall winter for one more hour, write about the fall, and know that the harsh weather of today would be washing away snow in a couple of months. Tonight we’ll set our clocks back, and wake tomorrow to a warmer day and that winter light.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Green book publishing

We went to a panel this evening on the greening of the book business. The panelists were almost entirely book manufacturers, the audience members all worked for publishers, and the actual theme of the first hour felt more like greenwashing, or perhaps a group therapy session.

The panel discussed a lot of ways that book manufacturing can be made less environmentally damaging. It’s useful to hear that major changes can happen in paper choices at a book manufacturer because of a few customers or even just one customer pushing for recycled papers. I’m glad to know that the offset work I order runs on sheet-fed presses where the inks may be 25% VOC and only 5% of that escapes into the atmosphere, rather than web-fed presses where the inks may be 40% VOC and 80% of that escapes into the atmosphere. But it makes me feel bad about occasionally buying a daily newspaper, since those do run on web-fed presses.

The shift away from hot lead typesetting and chemical films, the advent of soft proofing, smarter paper inventory management, lower-VOC inks, HID lighting, recycled paper, FSC-certified paper, alkaline paper production, soy-based inks, these are all important environmental steps that have been done first and foremost for cost reasons. (As one panelist helpfully explained, if they lower their costs, they can also lower their prices. And apparently customers choose based on price.) What the book manufacturers have figured out is that they can promote the environmental benefits as a way to make their customers and themselves feel good. They can even offer to let customers pay extra for the book manufacturer to buy carbon offsets or directed power generation. And for customers who aren’t willing to spec a recycled paper, they can offer a growing range of mostly meaningless certifications on virgin papers.

I knew who the panelists would be, and I shouldn’t have expected more. Book manufacturers who specialize in long runs are not going to tell you that the real environmental benefits in book publishing come from printing fewer books or shifting to electronic publication. The Xerox rep isn’t going to suggest a paperless workflow, the Adobe rep isn’t going to tell you to find a software solution that runs on your current hardware and stick with it, Barnes and Noble isn’t going to tell you to fix bookstore and distributor return policies. And the planet isn’t going to suggest anything as a solution, because the planet can’t join a panel at a conference table in the publisher’s 5th floor cafeteria.

Train station, not in America

Photo by Lisa