“Speak Truth to Power”

In an otherwise forgettable personal rant by a Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist against the excellent PowerLine blog, you find the following quote:

They should call themselves “Powertool.” They don’t speak truth to power. They just speak for power.

References to “speak[ing] truth to power” abound on the Internet, mostly referring to some group’s purported goal of confronting some powerful person or group. From what I can tell, the phrase first became popular among Quaker pacifist groups in the middle of last century. “Power” to them referred to its most obvious form–military force–and was thus very applicable to their mission. While the contrast between speaker and power is rarely this clear, the general idea behind “speaking truth to power” implies that the speakee has the power.

With that in mind, let’s look at the Star Tribune and its parent company, McClatchy:

Headquartered in Sacramento, Ca., the company has 12 daily and 18 community newspapers with a combined average circulation of 1.4 million daily and 1.9 million Sunday. Over the decades, McClatchy newpapers’ many honors have included 12 Pulitzer Prizes, three of which were gold medals for public service.

That sound pretty powerful to me. As do their financials, including their market cap of $3 billion. (How many bloggers have access to even a third of that?)

While professional journalism seems to be quite happy about “speaking truth to power” when the “power” is someone else, they seem less enthusiastic when they are the “power” being spoken to. Here we have a blog that dared to criticize a columnist at the 14th most-read newspaper in the country, a crime for which only vague sexual innuendo, false accusations (according to PowerLine), and misleading conclusions, all broadcast to their entire readership, would fit as a punishment.

Being a large media figure means being powerful, and we all know how well power corrupts. Journalism has had quite its measure of scandals this year, and has so far not responded well to any of them. But it’s rare to see utter cluelessness on this scale: the 14th largest newspaper in the country using their power to attack a blog by three people, and complaining about them not “speaking truth to power”.

Here’s a hint, Nick: They were speaking truth to power, and that power was you. How does it feel to play the part of a blustering Nixon in your own personal Watergate analogy?

(PowerLine responds here and here.)

Recommended Reading from Neal Stephenson

Two of my birthday presents this year were Neal Stephenson’s latest works: Quicksilver and The Confusion. Stephenson was the only author I requested this year by name, and the books are much appreciated.

Looking at these books reminded me of the essay Stephenson wrote a while back: In The Beginning Was The Command Line (also available without download here). The essay does an excellent job explaining the problems with Windows, why Apple has survived, and why more difficult systems like Linux maintain their popularity. If any of this interests you (even in the limited sense of wondering what makes me tick), then go read the essay.

Skype: Doing It Right

A few days ago, I got a surprising call from a good friend in Japan, and we had a long talk, something we hadn’t done since he left.

As you can imagine, phone service from Japan to Indiana is a bit pricey under most circumstances. In searching for alternatives, my friend had discovered a distinctly different service: Skype. Among its benefits, I was told, was a very cheap service for calling into the traditional phone network, and he was taking advantage of his newfound freedom to call.

The more I looked at this new service, the better it looked. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had a Linux Skype client, and while the implementation isn’t perfect, it’s easily one of the best commercial Linux programs I’ve ever used. This is especially noteworthy given the state of Linux sound support today; nearly all the problems I’ve had have been related to sound, which isn’t surprising given the driver rearchitecturing that’s been going on and the circumstances surrounding multiplexing sound on the open source desktops.

The general interface model is based off instant messenging, instead of trying to pretend to be a phone. A real (proprietary, alas) instant messenger is built into the service. The program keeps a buddy list, with status, and one can search for new buddies and add them to the list in the usual manner.

Their revenue model is particularly smart. The client (for MacOS X, Windows, and Windows CE, as well as Linux) is free, as is the Skype-to-Skype voice service. People wanting to talk to real phones can pay into an account, from which money is deducted when calling. The rates are compelling: 2 cents per minute within the continental USA, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Chile, and Australia, with slightly higher rates for other regions. For reference, Japan is 2.57 cents per minute. Thus, the service is a good draw without paying a dime, and the money-makers fit well within that context. It will be interesting to see if they can make this work; certainly they seem to be doing well for now.

When I talked to my friend on the phone, I could not tell that he was using an Internet voice service. The lag was actually less than I was accustomed to with international calls, and the voice quality was every bit as good as any call I’ve made. Using the computer has not been quite as good; his voice sounds choppy to me, though he says I come through loud and clear. This could be an issue with the client; I haven’t tried it on Windows to see if performance is better. What’s more, choppiness seemed to increase with system load on my box.

Overall, I give Skype a big thumbs-up. It certainly won’t replace your cell phone or traditional home phone (for one, that 2 cents per minute is charged whether you’re calling Sweden or your next-door neighbor), but it beats all the intra-American long distance plans I know about, and if you can convince your friends to use Skype as well, then the price becomes unbeatable. I’ll grant that I don’t make many international calls, but I don’t see the downside there apart from service availability.

UPDATE (2005-01-20): Slashdot has linked to this analysis of the Skype protocol by researchers at Columbia. Interestingly, Skype appears to be entirely peer-to-peer, and is being developed by the same people who wrote KaZaA, the peer-to-peer file sharing system.

Happy Eleventh, Jon

It’s four minutes to midnight. Eleven years ago, I settled into bed, alone, forever changed by the events I had just participated in.

I had watched my first child born, had heard his cry, and had carried him into the nursery (a procedural blunder by the hospital for which I am grateful). I watched him closely for forty-five minutes, laying nearly naked under a jaundice lamp, blinking and looking around, mostly up at my face. I wondered what he thought of the big guy hovering over him.

Forty-five minutes bracketed my own life as a child, and heralded a dramatic change: I was now a father.

Today, eleven years later, the baby is gone, and the thing that has taken its place is often irreverent, sometimes difficult, but always amazing to me. I am now slowly losing him to himself, a process I knew was coming, but never thought much about. Until now, that is.

Happy birthday, Jon. You’re turning into a great guy. Just don’t run too far ahead, OK?

Watchword: Russia’s Post-Communist Demographic Collapse

Unrepentant Marxism has, not surprisingly, been on the decline for a while now, even as Marxists try to adjust to current events in order to not appear totally divorced from reality. Such people should read this article (seen via Winds of Change and Stromata Blog) on the ravages Communism has left on the country that used to define the movement: Russia.

Evidently, demographic trends in Russia have converged in a demographic “perfect storm” of sorts. Birth rate declines starting in the late 1980s, combined with a health care collapse which has driven infertility and mortality to levels approaching those of Bangladesh, have resulted in a net loss of population in the last decade even with strong immigration. Such rises in mortality in peacetime are labeled as “counterintuitive,” “highly peculiar,” and “anomalous” by the article, and seem to fly in the face of mortality improvements in the rest of the industrialized world.

No system of government is perfect, and the free market nations have their own share of problems. But which should we prefer? One only needs to compare the fates of Russia and the United States to answer the question. Demographics trends are often interpreted as a subtle vote of confidence (or the lack thereof) in one’s own society; Russia’s margin of defeat in that election suggests that the country has a long reckoning with its past in store. Today’s Marxists should pay attention–especially those looking to follow the same path as Russia.

(This post on demographics, by the same author, is also very interesting, and talks about trends in China, Japan, Russia, Europe, and the USA.)

Comment Policy, December 2004

After reading this sad tale regarding comment spam, I thought that I hadn’t ever explained our comment policy here, and that I should.

First of all, I reserve the right to delete or edit any comment, though I will alert people to edited comments. I do promise to keep editing or deleting to a minimum, though. Spam is not tolerated. Discussions about unpleasant subjects (like sexuality or violence) should be done respectfully and without vulgarity.

Comments are basically wide-open for the first week. The only exception: certain words will trigger a spam filter, which will cause your comment to go into a moderation list for my approval. From your point of view, the comment will seem to disappear into the ether, and later magically appear in the post for no apparent reason (assuming it wasn’t the kind of thing I’d object to).

After the first week, all comments are moderated, not just comments with special words.

The restriction after the first week isn’t accidental. It seems that it takes that long for spammers to discover new posts to this blog and get around to post their garbage. If they don’t get here in time, the spam goes into the moderation queue, where it gets deleted before any of you have to see it. But it’s not indicative that I don’t want comments after the first week, nor that appropriate discussion of certain topics isn’t allowed. Just be patient.

Dialog and Dissent on Left2Right

If you haven’t heard about Left2Right, go check it out. It’s a blog written by a lot of high-powered thinkers who self-identify as “left” and who want to preach to someone else besides the converted. Some people call it “the Volokh Conspiracy of the left” (another blog you should read if you aren’t already).

After a bit of a shaky start, the blog has carved out a rather impressive niche for itself: a place where the so-called “right-wing” can read and learn what the so-called “left wing” thinks without some of the slander, innuendo, and sloppy thinking that so often permeates highly partisan sites. And the ideas are hard-hitting: with many of the posts, you cannot sustain dissent without some serious thinking about your own position.

In particular, let me recommend these posts: Elizabeth Anderson on diversity, patriotism, and the abortion debate (parts one and two); Don Herzog on the media and the meaning of equality, Gerald Dworkin on domestic security and perception (one and two), and David Velleman on values and the election.

It’s also worth looking at the site’s original mission statement, and their reactions to success that have modified that mission.

(Why the scare quotes around “left” and “right”? Maybe I’ll write about that sometime, but basically I think the categories have no meaning.)

Life Lesson: Don’t Buy At Sam’s Club

Last Wednesday, I was driving home from work when I heard a strange noise coming from the rear of the car. After a quick pullover in a parking lot, I discovered that I had just experienced my first flat tire.

Remember my rear-end accident of a year and change ago? It appears that I had yet to plumb the depths of the incompetence of Fishers Collision Repair. After rebuilding my van’s rear end, they “fixed” the spare tire assembly, which had been damaged in the collision, by permanently attaching the tire to the assembly, making it impossible to use the spare tire for its intended purpose.

But I digress. These tires were relatively new, purchased at Sam’s Club only a short time ago. At the time, the low prices, combined with the lavish benefits bestowed on tire-buying Sam’s Club members, made the case for us to buy Sam’s. Unfortunately, Sam’s Club could not make the case for us to stay with them, and we recently switched to Costco.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. All of those wonderful benefits were conditional on our membership. Once that was gone, all possibility of using those benefits went away. Sam’s Club, I was told, could not do anything, even sell me a replacement, and the person behind the counter even wondered how I had gotten into the store without a membership card. In other words, I am now devoid of even the basic customer support options one is used to, such as those against manufacturing defects or store mishandling.

And this was not all. Rebuffed at Sam’s, I made my way to a Tire Barn to figure out what to do next. There, I learned my second piece of bad news: the tire make is unique to Sam’s. Had the tire needed replacement, I could not have bought a match anywhere other than Sam’s Club or (possibly) Wal-Mart.

Looking back on it, we should have been more cynical, and assumed that Sam’s wouldn’t honor their word once we stopped paying them a yearly fee to do so. I’m sure Costco has similar policies, so it’s hard to just blame Sam’s Club for this. Nevertheless, as a lesson hard won, it bears repeating: do not buy anything from club stores that you foresee needing ongoing customer support for, including automotive parts, computers and other electronics, or anything else where warranty support is important to you.

The story turned out to have a happy ending; it was a simple puncture, and the tire was not otherwise damaged. Hopefully, these tires will hold up over the long haul, and I won’t have to replace them until they wear out (assuming we keep the van that long). But if they don’t, then what?