All posts by Rand Simberg

His Highness

Magaw won’t let pilots have guns in the cockpits, but at least he has palatial new digs from which to hand down his idiotic edicts.

I won’t believe that Bush is serious about “Homeland Security” until he cans Mineta, and reassigns Magaw to head up security in Thule, Greenland.

Space And UFOs

Joe Katzman sent me this link about how Scotland has become the UFO capital of the world. There are apparently more sightings there per square mile (or square kilometer, or square furlong, or square whatever units they use in Scotland), than in any other country. I heard the story on the radio this morning. Maybe they’re there for the haggis.

Oh, actually, on reading the post, I see they already mentioned that. He has a bunch of amusing comments from Slashdot, including “Come for the Haggis, stay for the anal probes.”

But that’s not really the subject of this post. While I appreciate links on all kinds of stories, I always get a little irritated at UFO links (though of course there would be no way for Joe to know, and this one doesn’t bother me, because it’s amusing, not serious).

I do so because there seems to be this linkage in many peoples’ minds between interest in space and interest in the grays. I am a fanatic about the former, and have zero interest in the latter. I’ve spent much of my life trying to get people to take space and space technology and policy seriously, and it’s immensely frustrating when you’re being interviewed on some radio talk show, and you get the call from the inevitable caller wanting to know if They Are Out There, and if the Government Is Really Covering It Up, as though that has anything to do with space, or you could be expected to have useful answers.

UFOs may or may not be visitors from another planet, or dimension, but in my humble (and not particularly informed) opinion, they are not.

But what they certainly are is irrelevant to my (and many others’) desire to get humanity off the planet in a big way. They are primarily a distraction, because many people, who know little about both subjects, seem to throw space activists in the same straightjacket with the UFOlogists, and make no distinction between them, and don’t recognize that they are two separate subjects.

The latter are looking for the Truth That Is Out There, whereas we are looking to get out there ourselves, sometime before we shuffle off this mortal coil. One is about engineering and reality, and the other is about fantasy and hysteria and conspiracy. So until one of them shows up at my front door, and offers me a ride, with or without the anal probes (if it’s the former, I’ll have to think about that one real hard, unless she’s really hot), I have almost zero interest in the subject.

When Hell Freezes Over

Or when the Palestinians throw out the terrorists running the place, and establish a decent society, sans madrassas, bombers, and hate. That’s what I hear Bush saying as to the time frame for the formation of a Palestinian state.

It’s about damned time.

Now it’s up to them. Unfortunately, I fear that there’ll be snow cones in Hades first.

Pot…Kettle On Line Two

Instantman points out this little anti-blogging screed by Tim Rutten in that “serious paper,” the Los Angeles Times. It’s chock full of pretension and fraught with snark. (In case you’re having trouble getting to the piece, you can tell a newspaper is “serious” because it requires its on-line readers to register, so that it can spam them.)

Bloggers, in case you have been spending the irreplaceable moments of your one and only life reading serious newspapers and good books, are people who maintain Internet logs of their personal analysis and reflections. It’s sort of old wine in new skins, since the bloggers are basically a narcissistic throwback to an easily recognizable American type, the 19th century cranks who turned out mountains of self-published pamphlets.

You know, like that crank Tom Paine. Wouldn’t want anyone out there rousing the rabble, you know.

Or is it just in the nineteenth century that pamphleteering went to hell?

The cranks had all sorts of idiosyncratic preoccupations–single tax schemes, silver-backed currency, vegetarianism and the metaphysical benefits of healthy bowels, for example.

Not to be confused with idiosynchratic preoccupations like promoting higher taxes, more government spending, less ability for people to defend themselves, how all will be fine in the Middle East if we would just understand why they hate us, that we shouldn’t defend ourselves against nuclear missiles, and other oddities that regularly appear in not only the opinion section of “serious papers” like the LA Times, but regularly in their reportage as well.

Stand in awe of the chutzpah of any paper that ever runs pieces by Bob Scheer and Jeremy Rifkin, let alone one that chronically does so, criticizing webloggers for publishing “idiosynchratic” notions.

Bloggers tend to dabble in politics, media and vendetta.

Hmmm…first he accuses us of being narcissistic, and now this. Apparently Mr. Rutten is irony challenged.

Wednesday, for instance, Kaus posted an item on his personal site ( praising former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee for allowing reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to publish their articles on Watergate at a rapid pace, even though that “sometimes meant revealing unsubstantiated or simply wrong information.”

According to Kaus, “Bradlee instinctively understood–you keep the story going, with hit after little hit, which gets people talking, which panics sources into coming forward, which gets other papers into the hunt and ultimately brings much more information to light, even if this means you occasionally get something wrong….This virtue of Bradlee’s editorship, it seems to me, is also a virtue of blogging as a form of journalism. The Web really does put a premium on speed and spontaneity over painstaking accuracy. Bloggers instantly print what they learn, and what they believe to be true. They sometimes–often, actually–get it wrong. But even those errors prompt swift corrections that take the story asymptotically closer to the truth.”

For those who cut that particular math class, “asymptotically” is the adverbial form of the noun “asymptote,” which is what you call a straight line that always approaches but never actually meets a curve. In other words, bloggers’ frequent errors of fact are inconsequential, since they push a story toward the truth, though it never quite gets there, which apparently doesn’t matter.

Kaus argues the superiority of this approach to that of “the L.A. Times editor of several decades ago” whose “unbloggish motto” was “Do It Once, Do It Right, And Do It Long.”

At the risk of committing “painstaking accuracy,” the editor was Bill Thomas, who served until 1989. He was a veteran journalist with a well-founded skepticism of self-interested newspaper crusades. He had traditional notions about the facts, which led him to abhor mistakes and to esteem fairness and balance. His motto was “Do it once. Do it right.” He certainly would have recognized an asymptotic approach to the truth for what it is–an excuse and a scam.

Well, apparently Mr. Rutten is laboring under two delusions.

The first one is common to journalism school graduates (or even dropouts), because it’s part of the modern creed–that there is some achievable perfection called “objective factual reporting.”

The second, which is not only a delusion, but a conceit, is that his employer’s paper not only attempts to achieve that platonic ideal, but actually succeeds.

Here’s a reality check. Stories are (at least for now) reported by humans, with human emotions, and human points of view. They are inevitably viewed through the prism of the reporter, and as they become ink and pixels, are passed through the sieve of his experience and prejudices. About any event, there is an infinitude of information that could be provided, but there isn’t ink and newsprint enough, nor bandwidth, nor time in the day for the reporter to write it, and the reader to read it.

So a story has to be reduced to what the reporter considers to be its essential elements. Like the old joke about the sculptor, he takes the body of available facts, and cuts away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant. But that’s the key; the sculptor is carving an elephant–a decision usually made before chisel is taken in hand. It may be that the rock from which he’s knocking off the non-pachydermic chips wasn’t simply a rectangular block–it perhaps naturally started out with a resemblance to an elephant, but that doesn’t mean that he couldn’t have hacked out a hippo instead.

So it is with a news story. The reporter has to start with some notion of what the story is. And as soon as that decision is made, the bias has begun, and continues. He has to decide which facts are facts, and which are conjecture. He has to decide which of those facts and conjectures should be included, and which left out. He has to decide which words to use–whether the protagonist is, for example, a “terrorist” or a “freedom fighter.” Each of those decisions, word by word, preconception by preconception, eventually determines whether the reporter creates an elephant, or a hippo, or a redwood tree.

And after that, if he works for a “serious newspaper,” he has to submit it to an editor, who will either agree that the reporter has created an elephant, or he might point out that he left out some critical item (e.g., a trunk) or included one that seems out of place (e.g., webbed bird claws for feet).

Once past this serious process, the story is complete. And in the mind of Mr. Rutten, “accurate the first time,” though a different reporter at a different “serious newspaper,” working with exactly the same body of facts (but a different background, sensibility, and bias) might write, and his editor edit, a completely different “accurate” story in which, lo and behold, it turns that it was a hippo after all, or perhaps…a platypus.

No, in the static world of “serious papers,” they don’t approach an ideal–they have a deadline, and they rapidly home in on what’s almost certainly wrong in the minds of much of their readership, with little feedback, because they’re Reporters and Editors, and it’s their job to tell us what the news is, and what to think. They’re Serious professionals, trained in J-school. They say, “we say it’s spinach and to hell with it.”

If they’re called on it, blatant misrepresentations of fact are occasionally handled with a retraction buried on page A23, but for the most part, the story sits there, right or wrong. And if it’s wrong it festers, and the infection takes the form of declining subscriptions, and even active boycotts and new direct competition.

And the anger against the media builds, not because of the bias per se, but in their contempt for their readership, and their sanctimonious attitudes and denial of their bias–that is their, in Mr. Rutten’s own word, “scam,” and people are getting sick of it, because they now have alternatives. They are turning to weblogs because we are refreshingly honest about our biases–what you see is what you get, and if you don’t like it, you aren’t stuck with it, as you are in a one-newspaper town–another weblog is just a mouse click away.

What Mickey Kaus seems to be saying (at least to me) is that in the blogosphere, we recognize that every story is a work in progress, and as it’s discussed, and bounced back and forth, it becomes more clear over time as to just what kind of animal it is, and a consensus builds, posts are updated, or new ones are added to elaborate and refine it.

He uses the word asymptote, because consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. There is no ideal story, there is no objective, accurate truth–the best that we can do is approach it and get broad agreement on the meaning of the known data. And in so doing, we can at least approach the idealistic journalistic goal, at which “serious papers” often fail miserably.

[Note, I saw that Kaus, Welch and Layne had responded to this before me, via Glenn’s site, but I took care not to actually read their responses before I wrote mine, so as not to contaminate my own thought processes with their much better ones. So if there’s any similarity to things that I say here and to what they wrote (I’m heading off to look at them now, having finished this piece), just think of it as a puny mind occasionally thinking like a great one.]

[Monday morning update.]

As Mickey Kaus says, it seems to be a rule of these little edited, mainstream potshots at error-prone bloggers that the article contain at least one egregious and embarrassing factual error. In addition to his misattribution of Mickey’s words, he had another one. As someone with one of his degrees in applied mathematics, I’m embarrassed to say that I missed it in my original critique, but it was pointed out in the comments section. An asymptote is not a “line approaching a curve,” as Mr. Rutten would have it, but a curve approaching a line. Guess he slept through math class himself that day.

Telephone Wars, Part Two

Now our friends in the Great White North are saying, to heck with that guinea from the imperialist US of A, that Al Bell did so invent the telephone.

Gentlemen, this means war.


There’s been a discussion over at Free Republic about the implications of this.

Southwestern Meucci, Altantic Meucci, Meucci South? This is going to take some getting used to.


Maybe there could be a compromise of sorts, and the new telephone company would be called “Mama Mia Bell.”