Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, March 31, 2011 7:50 am

The best day I can remember

Filed under: Salute! — Lex @ 7:50 am
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My Uncle Frank, my mother’s oldest brother, is retired in the Charleston area. He has a sharp mind, in part because he consciously works to keep it engaged. He has settled notions on a few things (most prominently, in our correspondence, the need for electoral term limits), but by and large, his willingness to re-examine things skeptically is a model for anyone half his age and blows the current crop of 2012 presidential candidates — of both parties — out of the water. He belongs to a vanishing breed: people who regularly write letters to the editor of the local newspaper.

He also belongs to a writing group, which recently assigned its members the exercise of writing about “The Best Day I Can Remember.” Because he and his wife, Frances, recently moved to assisted living, I reckon he has had a number of occasions recently to think about that subject, or related ones. What he wrote was short and sweet, and with his gracious permission I republish it here:

Most of the days of my life have been good days.  I could never say that any one day was the best.  The best day that I am aware of is today.  As long as I can think, and move, and communicate as I please, I will be having a “best day.”  I love to read, dialogue, touch, eat, drink, listen to music, and especially to be with Frances.

Some day, in the not too distant future, I will be ready for my days to end–for the chemicals of which my body is made to rejoin the chemicals of the earth.  Regardless of when that time comes, I am happy for the life I have experienced.

May peace be with you all.

 

Sunday, March 27, 2011 12:21 pm

Fishing for guppies with dynamite while the great white sharks swim free

Filed under: Evil — Lex @ 12:21 pm
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If you’re local, then you may know that the News & Record has written a great deal in recent years about Charlie Engle, the drug-addict-turned-marathoner who went to prison recently for submitting false information to obtain two mortgages. (Most of the more recent N&R articles are hidden inside the online paper’s Google-Proof Vault, as Ed Cone calls it.)

Now, unlike Nocera, I have no particular sympathy for Engle strictly within the context of his own case. If Engle did the crime, he should do the time. However, there’s some fairly serious question as to whether Engle actually did do the crime — any crime.

And then there’s the bigger picture, which is what really gets on my last nerve. Even if you assume for the purposes of discussion that Charlie Engle did everything the government accused him of (and even the jury tossed one count), what he did was a tiny, tiny portion of a vast criminal scheme in which many other people did far worse things for far more benefit, causing far more financial loss and human suffering, and, so far, have escaped meaningful consequences. Joseph Nocera lays it out in an excellent column for the New York Times:

Mr. Engle’s is a tale worth telling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its punch line. Was Mr. Engle convicted of running a crooked subprime company? Was he a mortgage broker who trafficked in predatory loans? A Wall Street huckster who sold toxic assets?

No. Charlie Engle wasn’t a seller of bad mortgages. He was a borrower. And the “mortgage fraud” for which he was prosecuted was something that literally millions of Americans did during the subprime bubble. Supposedly, he lied on two liar loans.

“The Department of Justice has made prosecuting financial crimes, including mortgage fraud, a high priority,” said Neil H. MacBride, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, in a statement. (Mr. MacBride, whose office prosecuted Mr. Engle, declined to be interviewed.)

Apparently, though, it’s only a high priority if the target is a borrower. Mr. Mozilo’s company made billions in profit, some of it on liar loans that he acknowledged at the time were likely to be fraudulent and which did untold damage to the economy. And he personally was paid hundreds of millions of dollars.  Though he agreed last year to a $67.5 million fine to settle fraud charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, it was a small fraction of what he earned.  Otherwise, he walked.  Thus does the Justice Department display its priorities in the aftermath of the crisis.

It’s not just that Mr. Engle is the smallest of small fry that is bothersome about his prosecution. It is also the way the government went about building its case.

This is not only unfair in and of itself. It also is wrong because unless the perps of this world-historical swindle face serious consequences, theft like this will happen again. And next time, it’ll be worse.

(h/t: Fred)

UPDATE, 3/28: The print edition of the N&R ran Nocera’s piece on page A5 today, labeled “commentary.” Good for them for bypassing the obvious excuse that the thing was too long to run on the op-ed page and giving it the audience it deserves.

Saturday, March 26, 2011 3:50 pm

Browser makers: Open your eyes!

Filed under: Housekeeping — Lex @ 3:50 pm
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As Jay Leno might say, what is it with browser makers lately?

First, Google Chrome went weird on me, and getting it uninstalled proved only slightly less difficult and unpleasant than flea-bombing a house.

Then I installed what was supposed to be a stable Firefox 4.0 release. (I used to be happy to beta-test browsers, but given the age of my OS and my previous problems therewith, I don’t mess with beta anymore). And approximately 3 minutes into a session, irrespective of whether I was watching video or reading e-mail or just browsing a news site, it would throw the entire machine into a hard freeze. No keyboard. No mouse. No screen activity. Hard-drive light dark. And then the screen would go into power-save mode, indicating it was receiving no input at all from the processor.

No such problem with IE. Firefox was clearly the culprit.

So I’ve uninstalled 4.0, gone back to 3.6.11, and if Mozilla wants me to come out of it again, they’re gonna need to send a posse and a really big gun. I’ve reinstalled Chrome at work and encountered no problems, but I’m gonna wait a little longer before reinstalling it at home.

So, browser makers: You need to keep in mind that your 19-year-old whiz kid’s idea of what constitutes a stable release might not be exactly congruent with my XP SP3 OS’s idea of what constitutes a stable release. And my OS trumps your whiz kid.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 10:17 pm

Fukushima nuclear disaster, live

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 10:17 pm
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English-language live video feed here.

(h/t: PourMeCoffee)

Monday, March 14, 2011 5:39 am

Going over like the proverbial lead balloon

Filed under: Fun,Y'all go read this — Lex @ 5:39 am
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Each year I have to lead two of Hooper’s Cub Scout den meetings. And each year I dread it.

To get an idea of why, read my friend Ed Williams’s account of leading a merit-badge session this past weekend. Ed is both literally and metaphorically an Eagle Scout, and if anyone knows from “Be prepared,” he does. And yet:

And I’m falling flat, reliving a nightmare since college, the one where I’ve failed to attend class for an entire semester, or cracked a book, and now it’s final exams. God, that dream gives me the willies. And still it comes back, even into my 50s?

Only now, I’m the teacher, standing before a whole class room full of … me. …

 

It’s 8:25 a.m. We break at noon. I’m looking at three-plus hours to fill.

I’m the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Anyone? Anyone?” …

 

I ask about first names. “Christian, where does your first name come from?”

“My Mom named me for a Disney character.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know.”

I get a lot of that this day. Anyone? Anyone?

“Gage, that’s an interesting first name. Where does it come from?”

“My Mom named me for a character in ‘Pet Sematery,'” he says.

And on break, I Google to see that, indeed, there is a demonic, back-from-the-grave, character in Stephen King’s thriller novel named Gage who goes on a killing rampage.

This leaves me disturbed. But everyone else is loosening up.

Nonetheless, little progress toward a merit badge.

In the past 30 years I’ve done presentations, given speeches and moderated dialogues in front of political bodies, committees of professors, boards of trustees and some of the most talented journalists in the world. And in no case, none, did I ever feel as nervous and unprepared as I did in front of the kids.

 

 

Friday, March 11, 2011 8:22 pm

Freelance writers, content farms and “The Dangle”

Filed under: I want my money back. — Lex @ 8:22 pm
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Freelance writing is a tough nut. You can make a living doing nothing but that, but you’ve got to really want to, for a lot of reasons. One big reason is the large number people out there who believe they’re entitled to use your work without compensating you.

Those people range in straightforwardness and reputation from outright plagiarists to website operators and content farmers. Their intentions, and the consequences they may face, vary wildly, but at bottom they all have something in common: They expect to make a profit on value that you have created, without sharing any of that profit with you.

Plagiarists you can name, shame and/or sue. The guys at the other end of the respectability spectrum are a little different, as financial wise guy and blogger Barry Ritholtz observes:

You would not volunteer to work for free as a greeter at Wal-Mart, a Barista at Starbucks or a fry cook at McDonalds — so why should you do so for free at these content sites?

The short answer is The Dangle: A promise of rewards in the future for work performed now.

Ahhh, the dangle. In my career on Wall Street, I have discovered the dangle to be an effective way to get something for nothing from some sucker. It is a way for someone with the appearance of power and money to obtain goods and services for free, for a mere promise of future benefits. Early in my career, I fell for the dangle. No more.

In the present discussion, consider these various dangles made by content factories to me over the years:

1) You will get traffic back from the content site;
2) You’re building an audience;
3) You are enhancing your own personal brand;
4) You will raise your Google Page Rank
5) You are developing a reputation

In my experience, all of these were untrue.

Note that most of these promises are rather difficult to measure (except traffic) and all of these are even more difficult to attribute back to the content aggregator. In reality, these promise are illusory, the benefits IMHO never accrue to the blogger. …

If you currently “donate” your content to an aggregator, I suggest you should ask yourself the following questions:

1) Am I giving away content to a firm that received VC funding? What is their potential upside? What is mine?

2) Has the Dangle been met? Have the promises of benefits made to me occurred? I seeing substantial Traffic increase?

3) When I search for my own content on Google, is my site ranked below my own content republished by aggregators?

4) Is any enhancement to my  brand or professional reputation coming from the aggregator’s site?

5) What benefits, if any, are accruing from republished content?

If you’re a freelancer, you are, in effect, a for-profit business. For-profit businesses do not give away the things of value they sell except for tax purposes, marketing purposes or other reasons that, when you get to the bottom line, are all about the bottom line. That’s neither inherently good nor inherently bad, but if whether you get to eat depends on how well your internal for-profit business is working, you need to make sure that compensation for the value you create is both tangible and as nearly immediate as possible.

Risk management …

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 8:18 pm
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… requires knowing two things: the cost (human + property) of a potentiality and its likelihood.

For example: Shark attack in Australia. Cost: potentially lethal. Relative likelihood: um, well …

Wednesday, March 9, 2011 8:05 pm

Heart of a champion

Filed under: Victoria — Lex @ 8:05 pm
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As Victoria has entered adolescence, I’ve cut back dramatically on the amount of posting I’ve done about her. There are a couple of reasons for that. For one thing, as kids grow up, privacy becomes more important to them, and this was a child who was shouting, “Pievacy, Daddy! PIE-vacy!” when I accidentally walked in on her in the bathroom shortly after she turned 2. For another, daddy blogging is a perfectly respectable approach, but it was never one of my prime goals for Blog on the Run: Reloaded. And for another, she deserves — and, in my opinion, has earned — the right to forge her own online identity, with only minimal involvement from me (safety issues, technical help), and that behind the scenes when possible.

But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t proud as hell of what she did earlier this week, not only in and of itself but because it demonstrated a major effort to push herself out of her own comfort zone.

Earlier this spring she tried out for and made her middle school’s softball team. She has thrown, caught and batted in our yard but never played the game before in organized fashion; soccer has always been her thing.

On Monday morning in gym class, she badly sprained her left (non-throwing) forefinger. Her softball team had a game that afternoon, and because of other injuries and/or commitments, the team was so shorthanded that if she didn’t play, they were going to have to forfeit. I took her home about 1 with instructions to ice the finger, keep it elevated and compressed and take Aleve, and to check back with me 30 minutes before game time to see whether she’d be able to play.

When I called her back, she said she was ready, so I took her. And not only did she play, she went 6-for-6. With a grand slam.

Now, this is a kid who, to be honest, is a little bit of a hypochondriac — except where her team sports are concerned. On top of that, she has had some legitimate injuries and related issues: a bad growth-plate bruise, a chronic problem with her right ankle. And in between practices and games, we hear all about it. But when she steps over the white line, she comes to play and she plays to win. She didn’t get that from me, and I’m glad she got it somewhere.

Ashes to ashes

Filed under: Woohoo! — Lex @ 6:07 am
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My friends with Nawlins ties tell me they measure the success of a Mardi Gras in tons of garbage hauled the next day.

Today, I’m measuring mine in terms of the fact that I got in and I had a number of important people in my life with whom to share the news.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 6:15 am

Happy Mardi Gras!

Filed under: Fun — Lex @ 6:15 am
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Thirty years ago, I learned that unless you have serious ties to Nawlins, Mardi Gras, like Disney World and the Kentucky Derby, is something everyone should do … once.

Monday, March 7, 2011 9:32 pm

Literature as real as it gets

Filed under: Y'all go read this — Lex @ 9:32 pm
Tags: ,

From the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall; temporary, I believe):

In our darkest moments, when our students have taxed us beyond taxing, when an outburst or a threat or a student stunt has rattled us, we who teach in community colleges will joke privately—only as a way to vent and find some perspective: Well, at least I don’t have an ax murderer in my class. In other words, whatever has happened, it could have been worse.

But now a suspected ax murderer was one of my students. What should I do?

The issue wasn’t just that a young man suspected of — but not charged with — patricide was on the rolls. The issue also was that in this course on short stories, everything on the syllabus addressed in some way themes related to crime, parent-child relationships or both. To add to the tension, the case had been and continued to be big news in the community, and the professor could gauge from class comments — or the lack of them — which other students in the class knew that the prime suspect was sitting at second row center.

Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case” found us discussing whether tension between fathers and sons is inevitable, and the lengths to which some people will go to get what they want, if even for the short time of a flower’s “one splendid breath,” as Cather puts it. Through Tobias Wolff’s “Smokers,” we looked at the airs that some private-school students assume and how and why young people strive for a life different from that of their parents. We looked at theft and at lying as measures people routinely use to get to where they want to go. Only one student would risk discussing the inextricably dark nature of Arnold Friend, the presumed killer and rapist in Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” But all appeared electrified by the real-life details of the serial killer Charles Schmid, the “Pied Piper of Tucson,” Oates’s inspiration for the story. No one floated the term “sociopath.” But it took no imagination to connect the dots between the issues examined in the fiction and the reports emerging in the news media that semester.

And so it went, day after day, story after story. Why do people lie? What happens when people act in anger? What lurks beneath brother-to-brother conflict? The stories hit it all. A “bloody hatchet,” for us a sick double entendre, even surfaced in Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation.”

The nature of students’ comments told me right away which students were aware that an alleged ax murderer was in our midst. Class discussions are generally free-flowing, dynamic, open. That semester we ground forward with the help of a few students who must have been in a blessed news blackout and a few others with exceptional courage and heart. Some struck me as frozen in place—always in class but never wanting to engage with the horror of the outside world that had found a physical and emotional presence in our classroom.

As for me, I did not hold back. I taught as though my life depended on it, and I had to believe that my life did not. My students needed those stories and the subsequent discussion and reflective writing. I needed to help them understand that, through literature, they were experiencing life in all its darkness and all its light, without suffering any of the consequences. Literature was fulfilling its best purpose, as I see it now.

The essay is a little gem, as tense and intense as Hitchcock. If the paywall’s still up when you read this, keep checking back.

 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 8:08 pm

“If Ebay replaced the classifieds and Craigslist replaced the want ads, this showed what might replace the funny pages.”*

Filed under: Fun,Geek-related issues — Lex @ 8:08 pm
Tags: , , ,

Most days, The Atlantic and Twitter are alike in all the wrong ways — shallow, repetitive, largely irrelevant. Recently, though, a pseudonymous artist created a Twitter feed that, within the 140-characters-per-tweet constraints of the medium, achieved, I would argue, the status of literature: @MayorEmanuel, a satiric take on the real-life Chicago mayoral campaign of foul-mouthed former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Moreover, in this article, The Atlantic not only outs (with his consent) the creator of @MayorEmanuel, it also shows how the feed’s creator both used and transcended the medium, as Frank Sinatra did with the 45, Pink Floyd did with the LP and Bruce Springsteen’s “Live 1975-85″ did with the CD, to provide insight into Chicago electoral politics, satire, a rich and highly developed character arc and a well-deserved dopeslapping of Michelle Malkin, capped with an ending worthy of Arthur C. Clarke. A reasonably high percentage of comments (including the one that provided the title for this post) further enrich our understanding and enjoyment of this phenomenon.

(Did you notice my characterization of Rahm Emanuel above as “foul-mouthed”? Both @MayorEmanuel and the Atlantic article contain oh, so-NSFW language. You’ve been warned.)

True, 99.99% of what you read on Twitter, including my stuff, is crap. @MayorEmanuel makes all the rest worthwhile, and maybe it will inspire others to do more with the medium. And maybe The Atlantic will realize more of its potential and stop wasting electrons on worthless hacks like McMegan.

OK, I made up that last part. It’ll never happen. But a guy can dream.

Why they call it Faux Noise

Filed under: Aiee! Teh stoopid! It burns!,Journalism — Lex @ 7:40 pm
Tags: , , ,

Watch the video, about labor issues in Madison, Wisconsin, carefully — particularly the background. Notice anything peculiar?

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