And I’m off!

Ninety minutes into June and the blogathon has begun. Thirty posts in 30 days.
I’m not sure whether there will be a theme, because I can’t predict the future.  I will likely explore some of my usual topics (politics, religion, philosophy)  but I like to be open to responding to current events.

I’m doing Blogathon posts at my personal site, thepiercepresley.com.

How the Newtown massacre rips me open, and how I respond

Conn. Adult Shooting Victims Hailed As Heroes

Every time I turn around, there’s some part of the Newtown tragedy that seems to tear me open all over again. I saw my kids, only a couple of years older than the victims, in those 20 kids. Their loss, and the terror that must have proceeded it, destroys any defenses I’ve built to be able to look at events and try to make sense of them (my vocation, in a nutshell).

This piece makes me see my wife, my parents and many friends who chose to apply their energy and talents to teaching kids and who, I have no doubt at all, would have chosen to die to protect the kids. Teaching, sad to say, is now an irrational choice; smart, talented people could make far more money with far fewer headaches in nearly any other field, and even the time-servers could find niches that are far less scrutinized and criticized for equal pay. It’s like being a missionary or a soldier or a relief worker now. And when those who are trying to do good are killed, a special kind of rage is created.

This is kind of like the reason I can only take small doses of damnyouautocorrect. (Stick with me, this isn’t silly.) I can see myself in those situations to such an extent that I laugh until I literally can’t breathe. And I’m using “literally” correctly here. I haven’t texted my mom any totally inappropriate comments intended for someone else, but that’s likely only because she doesn’t text. The identification is nearly total.

And so when I read or listen to something about this massacre, I’m completely involved, all my mirror neurons or whatever putting me in the position of a parent facing their child’s mortality in the most tearing way possible, of a husband, son or friend torn between awe and gratefulness and inconsolable sorrow at the heroism of a teacher that is just the outsized, panoramic version of the little heroic acts they do every day for their kids.

I get pretty emotional about this, and I pull even fewer punches than I normally would. I’ve hurt at least two friends’ feelings that I’m aware of in attacking political positions they hold in a manner reflecting my overwhelming desire to protect those I love, who I easily identify with the 26 who died. I apologize for the hurt, but I cannot apologize for the aggression. I’m only protecting those I love in the best way I know how in the situation we’re facing. They deserve nothing less.

Vestigial organs of operating systems

On Google+, Dan Gilmor mentions that the Windows 8 machine he’s using still has tap-to-click set as default for his touchpad, and that despite years of experience, this setting stubbornly refuses to stay turned off when the machine is restarted.
Tap-to-click functionality began plaguing computer users when LCD screens were so expensive that laptop cases didn’t have room for a reduced-size keyboard, teeny touchpad and tiny buttons. To save space, touchpad drivers had the ability to translate a sharpish tap on the pad into a left-click. Back then, the smallness of the laptop meant that someone with average hands couldn’t rest the pads at the bottom of the palm on the case while in a natural typing position. Not that those hobbit-sized (movie tie-in!) keyboards could be used with anything like a natural position. Maybe this worked on an 11-inch laptop; I wouldn’t know, my first laptop had a whopping 13.3-inch screen and, having read of others’ travails with those newfangled touchpads, a joystickish thing called the Ergo Trac. (Thanks, Dad, that Fujitsu Lifebook E370 rocked!)
Time passed, and LCDs got bigger and cheaper, keyboards expanded until you could find laptops with full-sized layouts with arrow keys, home/end/etc. keys, and number pads. And, slightly larger than the first ones, touchpads with nice, big buttons (sometimes three), special zones at the edges for scrolling and other cool touchpad tricks—and tap-to-click set as default. Waiting to turn inadvertent resting of my wrist muscles into a click, to turn a gentle landing in preparation for a nice slew across the screen into a click, to turn a frog fart from three counties over into a damned click that trashed hours of work in one fell swoop. For some reason, it’s still the default (I have no quibble with it being available—I’m sure someone out there needs it and I can’t cast stones with all the idiosyncrasies I have) and for some reason it resets when you restart. Because, I guess, you’d really like it if you’d just give it a try, and once you like it there’s no reason to go back to a tap-to-click-free world, is there? Drink the damned Kool-Aid!
And, of course, to disable it you have to go to the control panel, go to Mouse, figure out what tab it’s hiding under, and finally click to disable this beast from hell intent on destroying your very soul. You know what would make a couple million dollars for someone who could write it? A switcher app that let you create shortcuts on the desktop for simple, repeated actions located deep in the bowels of Windows. Like one to change the default audio device to my USB headphones and one to switch it back to speakers. One to turn off the touchpad tap-to-click, and one to taser the person who came up with it. You know, useful things for the end user.
I’ve seen similar things done with batch scripts, but you have to either write one yourself, manage to modify one you find without mangling it or trust that the blob of executable code you downloaded from the Intertoobz won’t inadvertently turn your machine into a very expensive and maddening paperweight.? Which is just the sort of thing you’re trying to avoid by turning off tap-to-click.

Why the newspaper paywall discussion turns into a holy war

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm asks why the paywall argument always seems to become a holy war. (update: Steve Buttry of Digital First Media gives a measured and appropriate response. second update: Hamilton Nolan at Gawker lays down some pretty common sense bullet points about paywalls, viz a viz The Daily Beast and WaPo‘s plans to institute one.)

My answer:

I think part of the problem is pro-paywall people who can’t see that journalism is a separate (and very different) endeavor from publishing or broadcasting. It enjoyed a very long parasitic relationship with them, but viewed properly journalism is a public good in the economic sense, while publishing tends to be more of a club good and broadcasting either a club good or a common good, depending on delivery method.

Whatever the classification, and even if you put publishing or broadcasting into the public good category, they are severable. As the economic climate changed for publishing and broadcasting, with the Internet not only expanding the media landscape but with advertising spending cratering (thanks to recessions and the discovery that many of the ad industry’s metrics were, to put it lightly, slightly divorced from reality), publishers and broadcasters looked to cut costs and journalism, always expensive, lost the support it had enjoyed. Add in many news outlets going public, being bought by profit-obsessed outsiders and piling on debt, and you have a recipe for drastic reductions in spending on journalism.

These changes and the underpinning realities mean that most newspapers are doomed, as are many local television stations and other outlets. They cannot sever themselves from the hosts that are now refusing to support them, they cannot meet the revenue targets set by their corporate masters and they cannot extract from the people formerly known as the audience enough revenue to support them (especially with the same product they’ve been delivering; a product that grows less valuable by the minute). Given these conditions, the new “digital first” initiatives may have the best chance at survival.

I take no joy in saying this. I’m a newspaper man at heart, and even having reached this conclusion, I would jump at a half-decent newspaper job in a heartbeat and drag my poor family along; luckily they’re pretty accepting of this compulsion. But as much as I love newspapers, I realize that journalism is more important (and it’s really at the heart of why I love newspapers). And if we are to save journalism, we have to recognize that the situation has changed and adapt.There’s really no mystery in the rancor of the paywall argument. One side refuses to see that the world has changed and will soon bring a wrenching change to their livelihood; the other can’t get their opponents to engage in serious argument because of this denial, which is extremely maddening. Tempers flare, issues become monochromatic and soon the sides are talking right past one another. The only way out is that reality intervenes, making the denialists face the situation without filters. But when we reach that point, how many newspapers will be salvageable? I fear it will be very, very few.

The Long, Dark Interim After Submission

In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you’ve taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul. — Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

I can’t claim to know what Adams was talking about with this passage, if anything at all, but I do know what it reminds me of: the time between submitting a piece of writing and hearing back from your editor. To be fully honest, I can be something of an arrogant ass when it comes to writing and can feel a distressingly sneering contempt for those who can’t write a decent line except unintentionally. And unlike my fully justified pride in my spelling, vocabulary and accuracy—which, while imperfect, are a hell of a lot more quantifiable—might be motivated by the fear that what I’ve just written might suck.

That the magic might be gone.

I understand why ancient poets tried to entice the muses to visit and modern football players thank god for their touchdowns, and despite not believing in either and having a fairly good idea whence these skills come, I can’t fault either. You see, writing (and all creative work, really) requires a weird blend of unselfconsciousness and critical review, and part of the first really requires faith that you’re going to pull something that might be useful from a sort of black box in your head. I’m a firm believer in Anne Lamott’s idea of the shitty first draft (or the idea that I need to take care of the quantity and dumb luck will take care of the quality), but I know from experience that getting the hell out of my way results in far more decent writing amid the dreck. And that results in the appearance of decent writing that comes from nowhere.

If it comes from nowhere, if it happens without conscious intervention, if you are unselfconscious during the creation it is entirely too easy to believe that it really does come from without. So you invoke the muse or thank god for the touchdown, and you live in fear that one day it won’t appear. And one day it won’t, temporarily or permanently, and all the whistling past the graveyard that is writers (and others) denying the existence of writer’s block can’t dispel the fear that thought brings.

So there’s a gap between sending a piece in, when you think of all the things that could be wrong with it, when you imagine that the muse has finally tired of you, where you dread not hearing from the editor (or audience or whatever), but of never hearing from them. For what form of contempt could be more complete than silence?

“You’re a jerk, Dent. A complete kneebiter.” — same book, two pages before the quote above

Sure sounds like the editor that lives in my head.

Objectivity as opinionlessness or as self-discipline

Comment from Grant Buckler on “Is transparency the new objectivity? 2 visions of journos on social media”
If objectivity means journalists not having opinions, it’s obviously neither possible nor desirable. If it means not twisting the facts to support those opinions, it is possible and desirable.

Today seems to be a good day for people saying smart things about journalism.

Posted via web from Pierce’s posterous

Matt Taibbi:the system doesn't work when journalists are all nice people

Over at True/Slant, Rolling Stone political reporter Matt Taibbi not only defends Zero Hedge but gives what I think is an excellent argument as to why journalists should, by and large, be assholes, at least from the perspective of those we cover. Not to mention why a percentage of them should be, in fact, stone cold crazy. (Which some would argue you have to be anyway to pursue such a frustrating career, even when the main industry isn’t cratering.) And really, it’s not about style: I can look “aggressive” and never come close to challenging the status quo and its enforcers, or I can be polite, courteous and mild and eviscerate those who do evil in this world. Think of Stephen Colbert: he never once left character as a slightly manic right-wing ideologue, and he managed to slaughter the Bush hypocrisy—mere feet from the president himself. If a comedian has that kind of cojones, what about those of us supposedly dedicated to afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted?

I’ve also recently read Stowe Boyd’s takedown of the Washington Post’s new social media rules (which are horrible) and made a comment on how journalists have turned objectivity, the act of at least trying not to let your biases control your coverage, into a simpering refusal to take any stand on the facts and instead produce copy where somehow the truth becomes a political football to be kicked around by partisans who care mostly about keeping facts from ruining whatever scheme they’re running right now. And yes, there are people like this on all sides (I adamantly refuse to reduce politics, culture, etc. to the simplistic two sides).

Posted via email from Pierce’s posterous

Google aims to set your data free–from Google

A couple of Google programmers in Chicago have formed the Google Data Liberation Front (nice Monty Python reference!), says Lifehacker. As an acknowledged Google fanboy, I have to say I like this. Even though I can’t imagine wanting to free my data from Google’s cloud (backing it up, syncing it, etc. are a different story–though this development will likely make those activities easier, too), it’s nice to know that should that day arrive, they’ll be ready for me to export everything to our new reptilian overlords’ scaly servers.