Newspapers: "Balance and Objectivity", the business plan

In "Say Everything", Scott Rosenberg devotes a chapter to the tensions between journalists and bloggers. The ideals of balance and objectivity--cornerstones of empirical rationalism--were among the sticking points. Journalists held themselves up as champions of neutrality and painted bloggers as screeching partisans. But on page 290, Rosenberg makes an interesting historical point: journalistic neutrality was a business decision.

"Yellow journalism", as you might remember from your history classes, was unabashedly sensationalistic and pandering (favoring the lower classes). But by midcentury, expanding circulation forced newspapers to come up with a new business model: don't offend anyone. In the days of Hearst and Pulitzer, it was fine to be populist at the cost of offending elitists, but the later megapapers needed everyone's eyeballs.

The early practitioners, retraining themselves to tell both sides of a story, knew that this neutrality was a business decision. But to the next generation it became a religion. Perhaps it helped journalists find meaning in their work. Perhaps with the growth of American industry during and after World War II, and the acceleration of technology, the public placed more faith in a scientific worldview.

That scientific worldview was itself born for other purposes. Early Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire were firstly against superstition and only secondly in favor of logic. Sickened by millenia of religious wars, they wanted to free people from control by self-interested authorities and give them tools to decide how to run their own lives. Empiricism was just a handy tool.

Two centuries later, we hardly know any other way to think. Cause and effect are the bedrock of our worldview. It is the closest thing I have to a religion. I am the modern analogue to the late-twentieth-century reporter who thinks that to write is to write about both sides. But just because rationalism wasn't invented as an end unto itself doesn't mean I'll cast it aside. And just because journalistic objectivity was an accountant's idea doesn't mean it's a bad one.

Discussion forums hate inaccuracy more than they love inquiry

I'm going to pass along a meme from an acquaintance: Proof By USENET Assertion.
If you ask, "what is X?" you get little or no response, but if you assert "X is Y," you'll end up learning more.
It's a variation on lazyweb, but relies on crankiness rather than mentoring. This cartoon is on point. (No, I'm not complaining about my commenters!)


One of the reasons I think Facebook has become so huge is that it doesn't encourage that kind of crankiness. There is no "dislike" button, and there never will be. Sure, people will sometimes complain about a rotten day, but overall it's positive. By contrast, anyone who has spent time in discussion forums like USENET has probably noticed a tendency towards bitching and fault-finding. Maybe it's an embodiment of the GIFT. On Facebook, your audience is mostly people you've met in person. The next time you see them, you don't want them to remember you as an obnoxious prat.

Coming soon to a future near you

Flash forward to 2030:

"Whoa. It has art in it. Like when you take a blank piece of that paper stuff, and one of those pen things you keep around, and you draw pictures of words. It's much slower than speech recognition, and you can't even type on it, you have to draw every word and you can't undo. But this thing has ...hundreds of those drawings, all crowded with words. What is this thing?"

"They were called books, son."

Science education

The problem with all those high school science "experiments" is that they weren't. It's not an experiment if you know what's going to happen. It's a demonstration. What were we going to do, publish the results?

Considering that I ended up a practicing scientist, you'd think I must have learned what science was in high school and decided I liked it. Not really. Some of my high school science teachers did inspire me, and I discovered I was good at the analytical side of it, but honestly I didn't understand how science works until grad school. That's why I can't summon up any righteous indignation when I look around and see that the vast majority of Americans are ignorant about what scientific results mean.

It must be really difficult for high school science teachers today. In the 80s, we could set magnesium on fire in the classroom, but safety and liability and budgets have killed almost everything that used to be hands-on. Outside of school, most of the toys and appliances we buy can't be altered or repaired. Where can a young person develop a taste for hands-on work? At least you can still open up a desktop PC and install extra hard drives and video cards.

What would I do differently? I think science education emphasizes the categories of knowledge too much--for example, the acids and bases of chemistry--and doesn't teach how that knowledge was learned in the first place. How do you learn? One, get your hands dirty: people remember best what they learn for themselves, and curiosity will show you what direction to go next. Two, learn everything you can from the people who got their hands dirty before you. Act, observe, explain, and act again. Teach kids that, and they'll get it.

Tasteless joke: the 9/11 Commemorative Manhattan Cocktail

9/11 Commemorative Manhattan

Fill a cocktail shaker 2/3 full with ice. Add:
2 oz rye whiskey (for example Sazerac)
3/4 oz red vermouth (I recommend Noilly Prat)
1 dash Angostura bitters
Shake well and strain into a collapsible silicone cocktail glass.

Garnish with a maraschino cherry impaled on the nose of a toy plane.

Light a leftover sparkler from the 4th of July, bend it at a 90 degree angle just below the thick part, and place it in the glass with the bend at the bottom.

Wait for the sparkler to ignite the alcohol; serve.

Run away.

Leave it to the professionals

"Americans are being taught we’re too stupid to cook and it’s simply not true." This comes from Michael Ruhlman, a food writer, as he despairs over the dominance of cookbooks offering "30-minute meals" and other shortcuts. It's a provocative statement; what I think he means is that going out to eat or--especially--watching the Food Network presents an unattainably high standard for home cooking, and people are too intimidated to try. Seen from another angle, the seduction is that we're too busy to cook; after a long workday, nobody wants to spend (gasp) 45 minutes going from raw to hot.

Ruhlman wants us to be a little brave and creative, but Michael Pollan, seen on The Daily Show last night, wants us to just be healthy with his Food Rules. The idea here is "Eat food. Not edible food-like substances." Food your grandparents would have recognized. Fast food is an engineered product designed, in exactly the same sense that a car is designed, to be addictive. Fire up Netflix and see Fast Food Nation for a finely honed illustration of what Pollan wants us to avoid.

I think Pollan doesn't go as far as Ruhlman. Pollan wants to coax us back from the edge of a health care crisis; Ruhlman seems more concerned with our sense of power and engagement. Gaze in awe and wonder at Mario Batali's lobster crepe, or even a lobster from your local seafood restaurant, and it's easy to think it's beyond you. Leave it to the professionals.

I'll draw a parallel here (again) with the music industry. People don't much play pianos in their houses anymore. We're surrounded by examples of professional--engineered--piano playing making us feel too self-conscious to put our lowly hands to the keys. Leave it to the professionals. Stay away from the karaoke mic unless you really are Shakira.

I started cooking in college, when I left the dorm meal plan. I had five things I could cook, and at least three of them were awful. You don't know how many stir-fries I made with a quarter inch of oil in the bottom before I got it right. But it didn't take too much skin off my ass, it was healthy and frugal, and now I can make a passable risotto.

Somehow, the wonderful ubiquity of art and passion and craftsmanship offered up to our eyes by this modern age is corroding our willingness to do for ourselves. I don't know what the answer is - but I'm willing to write, even though every day I'm privileged to read writing far better than mine. is to 2010 as Sears Roebuck was to 1910

In many ways, is doing now what the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog did in 1910. A hundred years ago, the Sears catalog was the first comprehensive, massively distributed retail presence. It gave a lot of people more buying options and information, reducing the economic friction of personal purchases. Today Amazon has achieved something similar.

I had this epiphany after spending two weeks trying to buy a snowblower - a specific electric one. Every year we've paid a guy to come and plow our driveway, but last year he couldn't handle all his clients on the worst days, which was when we need him most. So why shouldn't I get outside on snowy mornings instead of spending half an hour on my exercise bike? The blower would pay for itself in a year. If I could find one.
In the late 1800s, farmers bringing their goods to town had to buy necessities like tools and medicine. Mr. Sears and Mr. Roebuck noticed that those farmers were at the mercy of local general stores, who often charged outrageous prices. So they advertised the same goods at fair prices and their catalog business exploded. By 1910 you could mail-order almost anything, up to and including a complete prefabricated house, if you were willing to wait for delivery.
So where was the problem? My preference for electric. I hate polluting two-stroke engines, I don't like to keep gasoline in my home, and I'm happy with my electric lawnmower, trimmer, and leafblower. Toro has been making a reasonably well-regarded 12-amp unit for several years. But when I called around, none of the Toro dealers within 20 miles of my house had one in stock. Eventually I was told that Toro makes one--just one--shipment per year, and it's basically impossible for brick-and-mortar retailers to get more once they're sold out.

As I write this, clothing stores are probably stocking their shelves with bikinis. It's winter! What if I need a new coat? Brick and mortar retail is broken.

Here is Amazon's opening: catalogs have become as seasonal and limited as the contents of stores. They get thrown away, partly because 100 years of consumerism have made so much crap available for sale that you'd need an extra bedroom to keep catalogs around. But Amazon has no such limitations. Their warehouse stocks millions of items--hello, replacement screens for my 8-year-old electric shaver--and the third parties that sell through the Amazon Marketplace probably offer another order of magnitude of obscure items. There are mobile phone apps that will scan barcodes, look up prices on Amazon, and tell you whether or not a retailer is charging a fair price. Amazon has become standard and universal.

But the reason I keep coming back is free shipping for anything over $25. I don't know how they can offer that for something the size of a refrigerator, but I'm all over that deal. How would I get a snowblower home anyway? I drive a small car. I like to buy local when I can (especially food) but this is a no-brainer.

Puple House Red Wine

I just finished making a batch of wine - the label image is above. It's merlot, from grapes grown in the Stags Leap District in California. The fine folks at Your Wine Cellar (part of The Brew Kettle) did most of the work. In a nutshell, I paid a little over $200, went there for two rather brief visits, and ended up with 30 bottles of wine. And I am now an officially registered winemaker in the state of Ohio.

It can be done even more cheaply; I know several people who took the complete DIY at-home route and spent less (at least on consumables). There are families - even here in the Midwest - who traditionally make wine every year, starting by buying grapes. My kit used juice, which is a lot easier but takes away some of the control (deciding how long the juice sits on the skins after crushing determines the tannin content). Beer brewing, of course, is a thriving subculture in the US, and not just for people who want a cheap buzz. It's maker culture, artisanal, a craft.

So I approached it expecting to be introduced to a new hobby by an experienced "true believer". Unfortunately, our visit wasn't like that. I suspect that Your Wine Cellar's clients mostly want batches of cheap custom-labeled wines to give away at events, because we weren't told much about what was going on as we mixed the ingredients together. I'm sure if we'd made it clear that we wanted to learn, they could have accomodated that. But ironically I learned more by reading the wikipedia page on winemaking than I did by actually making wine.

Of course, I could learn all I want by helping my boss at the winery he runs, which is significantly farther out on the economic scale. Laleure Vineyards (not to be confused with the much larger Laurello) is in Geauga County and makes wines from varietals you'd recognize - Pinot Noir, Chardonnay - grown in Ohio, not flown in. It's not easy to grow finicky Vitis Vinifera varietals here, but Rich does it. My favorite is his Cabernet Franc.

I'm told we shouldn't open our wine for at least three months. I tasted a batch of theirs that was a little immature and by my standards it lacked complexity, but I'm willing to wait. By the way, the Photoshop filter I applied to the picture of my house is "Dry Brush".