Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Friday, August 19, 2005

where's Mulder when you need him?

Could some amusing but harmless conspiracy theorist please explain why there have been so many plane crashes lately?

I thought it was the Rapture, but I was sorely mistaken.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

how would Jed Bartlet have handled Iraq?

At first, this just seems like a fanfic question. But an article on openDemocracy.com (one of my new favorite sites) seriously asked the question shortly before the war began. The author, Paul Hirst, proposes a number of creative solutions that never made it into the pre-war debate, including a list of NATO demands and establishing diplomatic ties with Iran as leverage against Iraq. I identify with those who call themselves "Jed Bartlet Democrats," tho I haven't watched enough of the show to try to make any coherent statements about how Bartlet's party philosophy is different from our own. But what strikes me about this article -- and what today's left activists need to remember -- is that the decision to use diplomacy means a lot more than just playing nice. It means using all of our resources to create leverage and making creative sacrifices to avoid the more tragic sacrifices we are making now.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

what's the funniest college admission essay ever?

You already know which one I'm talking about. Here's the opening paragraph:

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice. I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention. I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently. Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

I spent a while looking for this today after someone mentioned it offhand... figured I should provide a link for those that care. Not only is clever, but pretty good writing too.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

how do I fake being from Chicago?

I like to think I'm doing it rather well, since I actually live in Evanston (tho I have a significant other in Lakeview... maybe it's kind of like citizenship?). Anyway, here is a useful guide to Chi-town vocab. Particularly enjoyable:
Da Bears: Said only by suburban people who want to feel like Chicagoans, referring to the Chicago Bears. Originates from a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Da Bulls: Said only by suburban people who want to feel like Chicagoans, referring to the world champion Chicago Bulls. Originates from another Saturday Night Live sketch.
Though I know this is probably not a purely Chicago thing, I'm tempted to add "Save big money at Menard's!", which has been stuck in my head ever since I moved here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

could U.S. interns give India an edge over China?

Many people will have read this morning's story in the NYT on American business interns who spend the summer in India. The story briefly notes why such interns are going to India instead of China:

Many are in India to study globalization firsthand, Mr. Karnik said; that is often not possible in China because, unlike India, English is not widely spoken there.
Over time, could the relationships American MBAs build with Indian society make them prefer relationships with Indian businesses over Chinese ones, even if the latter are cheaper? Or would other economic factors almost always prevail?

where does progress come from?

This came over my "quote of the day" this morning... have I ever mentioned how much I love this man?

Progress isn't made by early risers. It's made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.
- Robert Heinlein

Monday, August 08, 2005

ain't it cool?

Linking to Lessig in the last post prompted me to visit his Web site, where I see he is editing the second edition of one of his books through wikis. I'm usually pretty skeptical about writing created by groups, but as long as Lessig retains some sort of final control over the prose, I'm sure the information will be top-notch. Best of luck to him!

are books going the way of music and movies?

A few decades ago, people were saying that the 21st century office would use no paper. But our offices now use more paper than every before, largely because of the proliferation of fax and copy machines (and, well, bureaucracy). People also said that books would be replaced with some sort of universal digital reader and that we would simply pay for the files. But more books are being sold than ever before (even if fewer people are actually reading them). While other concrete media, like CDs, films, and DVDs, are losing ground to file-sharing technology, the venerable old book sticks in there.

But not so for the new. While no one is dropping their books for portable media readers yet, the internet has expanded the market for lightly-used or "as new" books (as described in an article in this morning's Trib). It's a pretty good article, but it didn't point out that nearly all the terms of the debate are the same as those over file-sharing. The industry claims that authors aren't getting a fair deal. The consumers claim that the product is over-priced and that this is a more efficient way of doing business. This argument seemed especially familiar:

On the other hand, some say that when a book changes hands it could ultimately lead to new-book sales.

Said Powell, "Often a person becomes enamored of an author or a subject and starts looking for additional books by that author or on that subject. And their entry point is often a used book."

(Yes, that Powell.)

No matter how you feel about the subject, it seems like the complaints being uncovered by the "like new" market are worth considering. New books are too expensive. Publishing houses only push the books they know will sell (think summer blockbusters). Quality books have become more difficult to find (think indy media). What the "like new" problem shows is not that traditional media are threatened by new media technologies -- there is no new medium here at all. What's really happening is that a stifling market of over-consolidated corporations is being threatened by a reasonable market of independent distributors (and who knows, maybe publishers and authors will be next). As Lawrence Lessig might argue, the problem is not the new technologies, but a corporate order feeling the natural resistance that a fair market would accomodate.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

what was Plan B in the Pacific Theater? (and would it have been worse?)

Every person with the slightest interest in American history has had the discussion about The Bomb. It's hard to contribute anything new to either the debate over whether it was morally acceptable or the question of how the war would have proceeded without it. For years, the justification given for use of The Bomb was the huge number of lives (American and Japanese) that would have been lost in an invasion of Japan. However, a recent article from OpenDemocracy.com adds a new twist to the debate -- the American government was prepared to use massive amounts of chemical weapons against the Japanese in such an invasion.

The thought of this being a part of my own history frightens me. I know Hiroshima and Nagasaki were horrific, but something about them seems inevitable -- not just because they are such a familiar part of the past, but something about the novelty of the bomb itself, the wonder and terror of Trinity. Though I am sure it has been lived and relived many times in the minds of the victims, the singular flash seems as if it must have been necessary to bring in the Cold War and all that followed.

The record of chemical warfare would not seem nearly as clean. The news would have trickled back to the U.S., probably resulting in a more ambiguous final few months of the war. The resentment over the internment of the Japanese in California might have become even worse once the images were recycled in the public mind. And it seems likely that the Japanese would at least to attempt to return fire, resulting in thousands of American chemical casualties. It might result in an entirely different history of "weapons of mass destruction."

But there are two questions in particular that stick in my mind. First, would the death toll have been higher if chemical weapons had been used instead of The Bomb? Keep in mind that this includes a large number of deaths from the conventional invasion as well. The article claims that the U.S. estimated 5 million deaths -- while Wikipedia says about 120,000 immediate deaths from the A-bombs, and twice that many over time. Even if the original estimate is conservative, it seems like the bombs would have been a more humane choice.

A more relevant question, though, is what does the plan to use chemical weapons say about the race factor in the use of the bomb? It seems unlikely that race and culture didn't play some role. If the war in Germany had lasted longer and Truman had contemplated bombing a major German city, you would think some of his advisers would object on the grounds of European cultural heritage. "We don't want to be rememberd as the civilization that destroyed one of the cultural capitals of the world, etc." At the least, you would think that this might have motivated Truman to consider a target of low value as a demonstration. But history never forced Roosevelt or Truman to make a choice about using atomic weapons against Germany.

However, using chemical weapons would have been a possibility. Yet unless there's something missing from this article, it would seem that the Americans never planned on it. There may be explanations here I'm avoiding, but I think this provides some essential insight into the decision to drop the bombs on Japan.

how do I appear to be well-read when I'm actually not?

Well, you asked just the right guy -- this skill is a vital part of my Northwestern education.

No, seriously, I recently auditioned to be an SAT instructor and was asked to give a 5-minute presentation on a topic from a list of suggestions. I chose this one, and provided a handout for my "students." Since I put some time into it, I figured I would reprint it here:

Basic tips

• Use active listening: eye contact, nodding at title or author, use encouraging words and expressions.
• Repeat the author’s name, title, subject or other detail.
• Use empty adjectives to describe the author: profound, engaging, riveting, fascinating, well-written, haunting, intriguing, etc.
• Ask questions that assume that you’ve read the book: “How far are you?” “Do you like it so far?” “How do you think it compares with his earlier work?” “Have you got to the end yet?” “What part was your favorite?”
• Build on information you’ve received to develop further questions: “Why do you think that?”

Some rules to remember

• The main reason to appear to be well-read is to gain information from people who actually are and deal with people who are faking. Most people have never read (much less understood) the books they talk about. But you may have to appear to be well-read in order to discover their opinions and attitudes, or simply to keep them talking. But remember, actual reading is always best.
• Never admit to reading anything that you would actually enjoy. Strictly off-limits: adventure novels, science fiction, romances, humor books, sports books, food books, celebrity biographies. If someone does admit to reading any of these things, they are an honest person and you should talk to them whenever possible.
• Never mess with an expert – if someone clearly knows everything about an author or topic, create the impression that you’ve read one or two books on the topic, then keep them talking so you can reference them in the future. “Well, I was talking with Professor Smith about this book, and he said…”

If you’re cornered…

• You can say you haven’t gotten to the book because in the middle of a very large volume that no one ever intends to read. Ex.: “Well, I haven’t actually gotten very far in that one yet, because I’m right in the middle of Finnegan’s Wake, and you know how that goes.” Something hopelessly obscure will do as well.
• If you think you cannot fake knowledge of an entire topic, always be ready to bring up a book you have previously read, discussed or heard about. If it is vitally important to discuss the book at hand, say you’ve read a review of it. Never change the topic away from books.
• “It had a certain… je ne sais quoi.” This French phrase literally means, “I don’t know what.” You can use it completely honestly and score points with snobs for speaking French.
• “It reminded me of… hmm… the Greeks had a word for it, didn’t they?” Fear not, the Greeks had a word for everything, and no one remembers any of them.

sound familiar?

From an op-ed article in this morning's Trib on Saudi Arabia:

The educational system is also out of touch with reality.

Oh no.
The school system has been skewed toward religious studies, thus reducing the time spent on other needed disciplines required to prepare young Saudis for the future.

Oh shit.
Saudis are graduating in record numbers from Saudi universities with degrees in religion and humanities--making them increasingly unemployable in times when science and technology are the name of the game.

Humanities? Unemployable? Well I'm Ph.uckeD.

what's coming over my Google ads?

Strangely, a blog entirely dedicated to the idea that cold calls are an ineffective sales strategy. I wish I could be so focused!


I'm guessing he's probably right, tho I have to say that as a journalist I respect cold-call skills. I don't know anything about sales, but we certainly couldn't do our work without a lot of time on the horn.

what were the scariest things to be born in 1995?

Why those pesky creatures that inhabit the various versions of Windows. Their grandaddy was Microsoft Bob, the ultimate in user-fiendly design (note the lack of the r. Definition: user-fiendly -- a product that purports to make the user's life easier but actually assumes that the user is an idiot and needs to have his/her life managed by a computer. For examples, try to do anything in Microsoft Word.)

Anyway, it's worth remembering Bob and the varmits it bore. Here's an interesting little description of the beast.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

why can't I all just get along? (or "how meta is that?")

I am a person who is occasionally annoyed by the first-person plural. The editorial "we" doesn't bother me so much as when people use it in "polite" commands ("How about we all calm down now?"). But I sympathize with this fellow Singularist, who created a program that removes all first-person plural from the various -ist sites (Chicagoist, Gothamist, etc.) Singularist seems to get all the major forms (we, our, ours, ourselves, etc.) but misses them when they're in all caps, resulting in this amusing post from Chicagoist on the topic. The Chicagoist version:

Only a couple of days after launch, the Chicagoist Editorial Staff have been bombarded with demands from our über-hip friends demanding to know if we've seen Singularist. The answer, yes we have, and WE think, at least in Chicago, that it's pretty damn funny and inventive.

Launched on July 30th, Singularist is the singular effort of University of Southern California communications major Eric Richardson who, annoyed with our consistent "group commentary" and use of we - because we are members of a collective, hive-being - decided to script a site that would strip out the offending first-person plural, and make it all singular. Because he's from Los Angeles Singularist defaults to LAist, but you can read any of the other sites. Chicagoist is "cleansed" too.

And then the Singularist version:

Only a couple of days after launch, the Chicagoist Editorial Staff have been bombarded with demands from my über-hip friends demanding to know if I've seen Singularist. The answer, yes I have, and WE think, at least in Chicago, that it's pretty damn funny and inventive.

Launched on July 30th, Singularist is the singular effort of University of Southern California communications major Eric Richardson who, annoyed with my consistent "group commentary" and use of I - because I am members of a collective, hive-being - decided to script a site that would strip out the offending first-person plural, and make it all singular. Because he's from Los Angeles Singularist defaults to LAist, but you can read any of the other sites. Chicagoist is "cleansed" too.

Apparently it screws up umlauts as well. Down with über!

Also funny from Chicagoist's interview with Singularist creator:

Chicagoist: How often do you read Ist? Just LAist, or the others too?
Eric Richardson: i've posted various rants about LAist in the past
Eric Richardson: just LAist. i probably check the site once or twice a day.
Eric Richardson: i just didn't think it was fair to just target them when the code could do (almost) all the -ist sites
Eric Richardson: paris was going to be rough, so i left it out

Non non, mon ami! I'm sure someone could fix that up (not me, damn reflexives). Also:

Chicagoist: So, are you planning to spice up any other blogs? Like say translate Gawker into Elizabethan English?
Eric Richardson: the problem is that grammar's hard

Ain't it the truth? I'd love to design a program that would remove passive voice from academic papers, but that would be extremely difficult...