Thursday, May 30, 2013

Death by Debt

(1)  Hearken to this, the New York Times reporting on widespread failures of Chinese-manufactured solar panels. 

It was not an isolated incident. Worldwide, testing labs, developers, financiers and insurers are reporting similar problems and say the $77 billion solar industry is facing a quality crisis just as solar panels are on the verge of widespread adoption.

No one is sure how pervasive the problem is. There are no industrywide figures about defective solar panels. And when defects are discovered, confidentiality agreements often keep the manufacturer’s identity secret, making accountability in the industry all the more difficult.

But at stake are billions of dollars that have financed solar installations, from desert power plants to suburban rooftops, on the premise that solar panels will more than pay for themselves over a quarter century.

The quality concerns have emerged just after a surge in solar construction. In the United States, the Solar Energy Industries Association said that solar panel generating capacity exploded from 83 megawatts in 2003 to 7,266 megawatts in 2012, enough to power more than 1.2 million homes. Nearly half that capacity was installed in 2012 alone, meaning any significant problems may not become apparent for years.

“We need to face up to the fact that corners are being cut,” said Conrad Burke, general manager for DuPont’s billion-dollar photovoltaic division, which supplies materials to solar manufacturers.

The solar developer Dissigno has had significant solar panel failures at several of its projects, according to Dave Williams, chief executive of the San Francisco-based company.

“I don’t want to be alarmist, but I think quality poses a long-term threat,” he said. “The quality across the board is harder to put your finger on now as materials in modules are changing every day and manufacturers are reluctant to share that information.”

Most of the concerns over quality center on China, home to the majority of the world’s solar panel manufacturing capacity.

After incurring billions of dollars in debt to accelerate production that has sent solar panel prices plunging since 2009, Chinese solar companies are under extreme pressure to cut costs.

Chinese banks in March, for instance, forced Suntech into bankruptcy. Until 2012, the company had been the world’s biggest solar manufacturer.

Executives at companies that inspect Chinese factories on behalf of developers and financiers said that over the last 18 months they have found that even the most reputable companies are substituting cheaper, untested materials. Other brand-name manufacturers, they said, have shut down production lines and subcontracted the assembly of modules to smaller makers.

“We have inspectors in a lot of factories, and it’s not rare to see some big brands being produced in those smaller workshops where they have no control over quality,”

Set aside any nitpicking specific to engineering issues of solar energy:  our quarry is broader here.   The essential part has been boldfaced, and applies well beyond the details of plastic-vs-glass coatings of panels or whatnot.
Follow closely.  The point is not to concatenate a miscellany of kvetches, but to limn a causal narrative which links them, and which therefore possesses a certain predictive power.

[Update 4 June 2013:   The US isn’t the only country that has a sour taste over Chinese solar panels:]

A quelques heures de la décision de la Commission européenne, qui doit indiquer ce mercredi si elle va finalement imposer des sanctions commerciales contre les industriels chinois du photovoltaïque soupçonnés de dumping , le Premier ministre chinois, Li Keqiang, vient de monter en première ligne pour menacer directement Bruxelles.[NL_8h]-20130604-[s=461370_n=2_c=204_]-1664277@2

(2)  During the March of the Seven Dwarfs, otherwise known as the Republican Presidential primaries, in a series of brow-wrinkling essays  I said various unkind things about the likes of Romney, Trump, and Adelson.  My primary objection was not that they are blood-sucking bosses -- there have always been blood-sucking bosses, and the best of them helped build the railroads (or at least, encouraged the sweating workingmen to do so).  The objection is that they mostly don’t really make anything of use  -- they are gamblers, and largely with Other People’s Money.
So now the prospect is, becoming maidservants of Chinese blood-sucking gamblers.   Since America has long been putting itself in hock to China, it is difficult to say no.  (Confer the role of Chinese creditor-banks in the case of Suntech, supra.)

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(My name is Daniel DeLeon, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Distinct from these considerations, though related, is another secular trend  tending to undermine incentives for business to aim for long-term health (let alone the public good):  the long-standing and oft-remarked upon widening divorce between ownership of enterprises and their management.
Back in the days of “Someday, son, this will all be yours” (familiar to us all through New Yorker cartoons, though no longer by direct experience)  the Chief had an incentive to insure that the business was a sound and going concern for the long term, even after his own personal demise.  He might sweat his workers, but he must not work them literally to death, since they would continue to be needed.  Moreover, the business could not be founded upon gimmick, fad, or false advertising, since with these, before long, the jig is up.
Whereas nowadays, it is objectively in the managers’ self-interest to boost their own salaries and (especially) bonuses  by means of whatever bookcooking flimflam lies to hand: for by the time the firm goes belly-up, they’ll be long gone, cruising around the Mediterranean  on yachts  bought with their winnings.
Nor will the shareholders and creditors necessarily call out the management on such practices, since, so long as their own share price does well during the thus-inflated bubble, they can cash in the short term, whatever train-wreck may later ensue.  (BTW -- None of this is really political or polemical;  it’s simple arithmetic.  If you have a problem with any of it, your real beef is with the Peano Postulates.)

(3)  The solar-panel fiasco is relevant to an issue now very much on the table -- top story of the day, in fact, as it would represent the largest Chinese investment in US industry to far: the threatened takeover of Smithfield Foods by China’s Shuanghui.
Now, the loss of US control would be bad enough.  But might we anticipate a similar degradation of quality? -- Well, we need not speculate, since in this case, that scenario lies not in some misty hypothetical future, but in the documented recent past, when these champion cost-cutters spiced their pork with tasty carcinogens:

(4)  Also very much in the headlines these days:   Chinese cyberattacks against the US.
Basically, whatever they can steal over the insecure Internet (such as detailed blueprints to advanced military aircraft), they steal, thus saving the cost of Research & Development.   But it is (so far) still hard to electronically purloin a sausage.   So they snap up a (fully functional) US firm (possibly using the same money that we have long been sending over there to buy their trinkets).
High-level meetings on the subject are taking place.  But -- Where can the US find any leverage to make China cease & desist from their thievery?
Well, for starters, by nixing the Smithfield deal.

(5)  The above is fairly straightforward connect-the-dots.  And now a less linear, more ‘recursive’ argument.

(a)  It is a matter of merest logic that the entities (companies or organizations) most strenuously opposed to government regulation, are those that intend to infringe such strictures.   
(b)  Once the corner-cutters and dice-rollers have their way (be it S&L’s or meatpackers), entities initially more inclined to prudence and honesty  are under objective economic pressure to do likewise.  Again, this is almost a tautology.
(c)  Suppose now that a population (be it of businesses or creatures) has evolved to relative equilibrium  in either of two separated (economic/biological) ecosystems, reaching phenotypes respectively A  & B.   Now connect them with an isthmus (globalization/ecotone).   Now A & B compete directly, head to head.  If, in particular,  A consists largely of “doves” and B of “hawks” (in the terminology made familiar by John Maynard Smith and by Richard Dawkins), then some percentage of the dove population needs to mutate into hawks if they are to survive.

Thus, the logical skeleton;  in the philosopher’s sense, it is virtually analytic.   The schema thus applies widely.   For the particular cases at hand -- say, a potentially sinified Smithfield -- fill in the contingent details from your own extensive reading in the press.   Our own home-grown capitalists are no angels:  given the right environmental pressures, they too will sink even farther towards the bottom.   Thus deals like Smithfield/ Shuanghui  have implications for companies and consumers well beyond those whose dietary favorites run to fatty, chemicalized, or diseased meats.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Relief for beleaguered Nook lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

(6)  Pork particularities
In their  piece this morning on the Smithfield deal, NPR was marveling that China might well keep on some of its American managers, for their expertise, for a while anyway.  “Do you mean” gurgled the interviewer “that China wishes to learn from us?”  (Visions of a starry-eyed admiring youngster, arms clasped around his knees, seated at the feet of the Wise One.)  “Exactly!” crowed the ‘expert’, reveling in his fifteen seconds of fame.
Umm… China certainly does want to ‘learn’ from us, though mostly they do it via espionnage  (see (4) above).
Kept on for a time -- on a short if gilded leash -- these rent-a-managers (Kelly boys, let us call them) one day will disappear, no-one knows where;  and the sausages temporarily  will taste a little spicier.
Indeed, this business is a natural match:  a match made in Purgatory, you might say.  Whenever China has a surplus of dead dogs, placentas, aborted or sewer-piped fetuses, the gleaming glistening sausage machine stands ready at attention.   And in this way, the Chinese can earn the coveted green “Recycled” symbol.  Bon appetit!

(7)  The prospects

The most important danger is not the comparatively visible and high-profile one of shoddy, defective, and toxic Chinese products.  As we import their products and their management, we shall -- barely noticing it -- import their human values.   For a glance at these, click here:

The exported cultural effluvium will, to be sure, be modified by the local ecosystem it washes up on, with somewhat unpredictable results.   So to get a glimpse of the future, we should examine the present,  at that beachhead of Chinese commercial practices, that early Sino-American biotonic isthmus:  Wal-Mart.    This entity deserves our focus,  not simply because it’s familiar to consumers, but because it has a real heft in our economy:  Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest private employer.

The first Sinitic influence upon Wal-Mart  was the challenge of accommodating a high-capacity/how-cost/low-quality Asian supplier.  Wal-Mart’s response was to emphasize volume and price -- qualities by no means out of keeping with modern American business practice, but pursued with a systematic single-mindedness that was unusual.  As it happens, I was afforded a glimpse into their business ethic, roughly a quarter of a century ago, from the side of the supplier, rather than the more widely known consumer side. …. [TBC, if reader interest warrants.]

More in the public eye of late, and quite disturbing, has been Wal-Mart’s effect upon labor relations.  As, this  from today’s Los Angeles Times:

For years, politicians and labor unions have pilloried Wal-Mart and other large employers for paying workers so little that many qualify for government health insurance at taxpayers' expense.

Now critics fear the public will get stuck with an even bigger tab as California and other states expand Medicaid as part of the federal healthcare law. That has California lawmakers taking aim at the world's largest retailer and other big firms.

Legislators, backed by unions, consumer groups and doctors, are calling for fines that could reach about $6,000 per full-time employee who ends up on Medi-Cal, the state Medicaid program for the poor and others. They say this would eliminate a loophole in the Affordable Care Act that encourages large retailers and restaurant chains to dump hourly workers onto the government dole because there's currently no penalty for doing so.

The outcome of this California battle could have national implications as other cash-strapped states search for ways to shore up safety-net programs that are bound to be stretched by a massive healthcare expansion.

"There are concerns that employers will be gaming this new system and taking less and less responsibility for their workers," said Sonya Schwartz, program director at the National Academy for State Health Policy. "This may make employers think twice."

The federal law imposes a separate penalty if large employers don't offer health insurance to employees who work more than 30 hours a week on average. In response, a growing number of employers are cutting some workers' hours to keep them under that threshold and avoid the expense of providing coverage.
Under the federal law, if those workers qualify for subsidies and buy their own coverage in government-run exchanges, the fines on employers can reach $3,000 per worker. But there's no federal penalty if a company's workers become eligible for Medicaid.


[Update 3 June 2013]  The Chinese Ministry of Food Industry has sharply protested the post above, claiming that the People’s Republic takes just as good care of its workers as it does of its livestock, as witness … mm, never mind.

[Update 4 June] 

[Well, that's it.  Enough of this.   Why not take in a movie:
Meet the Murphys (and the "dame" dame). ]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Frog in the Crock-Pot

I truly wish I were making this up:

«Est-il nécessaire d'apprendre à nos enfants à aimer les travestis?», peut-on lire en boucle sur les réseaux sociaux. L'information bruisse sur les blogs des sympathisants de la Manif pour tous depuis quelques jours. Le livre Papa porte une robe ferait son entrée dans les salles de classe de l'école primaire.
En 2010, la présentation du Baiser de la Lune, un dessin animé sur l'homosexualité destiné aux élèves de CM1 et de CM2, avait provoqué des réactions outrées d'associations catholiques.-

(The frog in the crock-pot muses:  Hmmmm….. seeeemmms a bit warmmmm ….. Mmmmmmm….. )

Some readers comment (but really, by this point, the needed response  goes beyond words):

Le lavage de cerveau a commencé, ce sera le règne des décérébrés....
Il faut faire pression autant que nous pouvons sur tous les acteurs de cette entreprise satanique !
Le pire, c'est ils ne sauront ni lire, ni ecrire, ni compter.
Le mariage pour tous est la première étape de destruction de notre société, destruction visant à créer des individus sans racines, sans repères, interchangeables, uniquement des producteurs-consommateurs soumis à leurs désirs.
Tiens mon papa et ma maman, ont tous les deux des quéquettes ! (ou, ils n'en ont pas ) POURQUOI ? Ils sont de quels genre ? ......! Comment ils ont fait pour nous faire ? La bêtise de cette loi Taubira est colossale et contre nature. Les animaux sont eux normaux !
Selon l'eschatologie musulmane,
la periode que nous vivons correspond a la proche fin du monde. J'ai bien peur que sur ce point la, ils aient raison !
Un individualisme vide qui confine à l'autisme à ce stade de narcissisme.
LGBT et consorts ne perdent pas de temps, ayant soumis Hollande. A peine votée la loi Taubira, vénéneuse de toute évidence, ils passent précipitamment à l'étape suivante. Il va falloir que l'opposition se radicalise, pas moyen de rester doux et tranquille devant une telle déferlante de catastrophes
Depuis l'arrivée de la gauche au pouvoir on a l'impressions que la priorité des priorités, l'urgence absolue en France, c'est l'homosexualité. N'y a-t-il pas de problème plus urgent? Alors que les enseignants ne parviennent pas à apprendre aux jeunes à lire, à écrire et à compter correctement, doivent-ils passer du temps à éveiller à l'homosexualité? N'est-ce pas se substituer à la famille?
Les norvégiens sont revenus en arrière sur cet enseignement stupide, qui a en fait créer l'inverse de ce qu'ils pensaient. Et nous on s’engouffre dedans!

Si cela vous parle,
savourez la série noire
en argot authentique d’Amérique :


The Three Bears
A PC-approved fable  for use in modern kindgergartens
“As the Twig is Bent,
So grows the Tree.”

Once upon a time there were three bears (plus a cat, their Domestic Companion):
Parent-Bear #1,
Parent-Bear #2,
and an underage bear.
They lived in Section 8 housing in the woods.

[Update 4 June 2013]  And now this:  the egregious, the ineffable French Justice Minister  Mme Taubira  imposes a re-education camp for judicial thoughtcrime:

Taubira impose un stage  sur l'identité de genre aux magistrats

[Update 17 November 2014]  France is abuzz over the participation of a French citizen in the latest ISIL beheading-festival.   But a more thoughtful reader comments:

Vous avez peur de l'EI ? Pas moi, moi j'ai peur de ceux qui autorisent le voile dans la rue, en accompagnement des élèves. L'EI veut allez trop vite, il tue, donc on le combat et il ne fait pas les poids. Les autres eux sont en train de gagner, lentement mais plus surement. Comparez la France d'il y a 30 ans.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Principles of Supernatural Selection

While our colleagues have been frittering away their energies on the vagaries of this and that contingent development in the visible world, we ourselves have, pursuant to a billion-euro grant from the IMF (Office of Unexplained Anomalies) undertaken to found an entirely new field:  Ekapsychic Adaptationism, or Supernatural Selection.  
To this end, we have assembled a crack team of researchers, including such luminaries of metanormal science as Bill, Chuck, Jim, and Bob, to aid us in p-p-penetrating  this inviting and (patulously) virginal  new frontier.

Thus for instance:  Why is Babar still with us, while Turgor, Twinkles, and Mr Moustache have gone extinct?  Something to do with DNA, perhaps? -- Nope, they don't have DNA, doofus;  they're imaginary.  (Sheesh). -- Some sort of string-theoretic quantum effect, mayhap? -- Wa-all, mebbe;  we're working on it.  But in the meantime, here (pursuant to the terms of the grant) are our preliminary findings.

* It helps to be rotund.
Witness:  Babar;  Dr Dolittle, Pooh-Bear, and (the popular romance of) Teddy Roosevelt.

* It helps to have a sidekick  very different from yourself.
As:  Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes, the Lone Ranger.

* No matter how many things you have done in your career, you will be remembered, or conceptualized, for just a few.
Indeed,  never having done a dayyum thing  is no bar to iconic status.  (Witness:  Mr Peanut.)

(Just leave the Nobel Prize in the mailbox  K thx bai.)

Memorial Day, 2013

In tribute to our fallen soldiers, a recap of military-related posts:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Ontology of Biology (mise à jour)

We treated of this in some detail in our core essasy, “On What There Is”.  Indeed, the details of this particular discipline threatened to overwhelm that general survey.  Accordingly, we remove to this adjacent seminar-room, for a few additional remarks.

Let it be said, that biology, dealing with actual palpable furry waddling entities, would not appear a priori  a likely arena of serious ontological doubts.   Physics, by contrast, can’t avoid such scruples, since it deals largely with the unseen, and postulates just about everything.  Mathematics, freilich:  it being (as some would see it) about Being itself.   The only reason, then, that the study of biology figures so prominently in our remarks, is the extraordinarily high level of methodological and even philosophical thinking that has been invested in the evolutionary enterprise, beginning with Darwin himself. 

We shall begin, as we love to do, with a quote from Quine:

When we say that some zoölogical species are cross-fertile, we are committing ourselves to recognizing   as entities  the several species themselves, abstract though they are.
-- Quine, “On What There Is”.

This is true -- indeed, true virtually as a matter of sheer quantificational logic; but its proper biological content is nil -- as Quine well knows.   We may avoid this purely formal commitment by “so paraphrasing the statement  as to show that the seeming reference to species on the part of our bound variable  was an avoidable manner of speaking.”  (The substantive, as the saying goes, can be pegasized away.)

~     ~     ~

In our essay above-referenced, we focussed on the ontological tug-of-war between species and gene as the favored stockkeeping unit of evolution.  But whatever the upshot of that, species themselves are obviously central.  Only … what are they?

As so often, Darwin was ahead of the time he himself largely created.  Coyne & Orr quote his Origin of Species (1859):  “We shall have to treat species in the same manner as those naturalists treat genera, who admit that genera are merely artificial combinations  made for convenience.”

And to similar effect:
J.B.S. Haldane observed that “the concept of a species  is a concession to our linguistic habits  and neurological mechanisms”…
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 11

And again:
Ridley notes:  “The fact that independently observing humans  see much the same species in nature  does not show that species are real rather than nominal categories.  The most it shows  is that all human brains are wired up with a similar perceptual cluster statistic.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 14

Why are organisms apportioned into clusters separated by gaps? … Dobzhansky (1935) found this question intractable:  “The manifest tendency of life toward formation of discrete arrays  is not deducible from any a priori considerations.  It is simply a fact to be reckoned with.”  … While history can create discrete clusters containing groups of species, we do not see how it can produce species themselves.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 49

Biologists… even questioned whether species exist.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 5

…whether species are real entities  or arbitrary constructs of the human mind.  [This is the Nominalist or ‘hocus-pocus’ position. -- dbj]  Several lines of evidence  show that species are real.   …  One asks whether assemblages of individuals -- populations -- are partitioned into discrete units that are objective, not subjective.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 7, 10

(To see how far- or over-reaching such scepticism is, for species substitute coffee-cups.)

We pause to marvel at such self-critical ontological nominalism about the central practical entities of one’s own discipline.  As though:
Dentists:  When we speak of ‘teeth’, this is a largely arbitrary demarcation among the hard structures of the body.
Football coaches:  To counterpose ‘offense’ and ‘defense’ is to indulge a false dichotomy -- which is, however, useful for certain purposes.
Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association:  To talk of ‘crime’ is, of course, merely a façon de parler.

Systematists, whose task is unraveling the history of life, often prefer species concepts  different from those used by evolutionists more interested in evolutionary processes.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 10

~  Posthumous Endorsement ~
"If I were alive today, and in the mood for a mystery,
this is what I'd be reading: "
(I am Carl Linnaeus, and I approved this message.)
~         ~

Another ontological posit:

Cluster analysis distinguished 32 fairly discrete groups in phenotypic space (“phenons”).
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 23

(One’s heart rather sinks, reading this.  Recall the profusion of dubious -emes in linguistics.)

… the essential dialectical unity of the biological and the social,  not as two distinct spheres … but as ontologically coterminous.
Lewontin, Rose, & Kamin, Not in Our Genes (1984)

All species concepts require some subjective judgments.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 34

This, from a pair of very hard-headed writers.  Cf. similar points by Keynes in his Treatise on Probability (1921).

Because we rejected ecological differentiation as part of the Biological Species Concept in sexually reproducing groups, we obviously endorse the use of different species concepts in different groups.  We do not consider this pluralism to be a weakness of the BSC.  Because the causes of discreteness may well differ among taxa, so may the concepts appropriate to addressing the species problem.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 52

Since this astute observation strikes me as very sound, I shall give it a nice name:  not Nominalism about species, but Polytypic Realism.

Just as it may be no simple matter to posit the right entities, it may not be evident how to ask the right questions:

The main reason we have had a hard time answering “How many genes cause postzygotic isolation?” should now be clear:  It is not a single question.  Instead, this query masks a large number of questions that may have very different answers.
Jerry Coyne and H. Allen Orr, Speciation  (2004), p. 306

And indeed, the authors conclude:  “There has been nearly endless discussion of species concepts.   This vast and stupefying literature has produced little new or interesting biology.”

[Update 22 March 2012] And indeed … Andrew Hamilton, reviewing Richard A. Richards, The Species Problem: A Philosophical Analysis, Cambridge University Press, 2010, writes:

There are four books on my shelf and countless papers in my electronic and physical files with the title "The Species Problem." Many of these were written by philosophers, but almost as many were written by biologists. …  None of the books and papers on this topic contains anything like a consensus solution.

The reviewer then rejects this latest attempt:

As a solution to 'the' problem or as a theory-based definition, however, Richards' strategy isn't going to work. … While it may be true …  that all contemporary species concepts pick out population-level evolutionary lineages, they do so in different and often incompatible ways. Agreeing that species are lineage segments goes no distance toward helping to find the boundaries or to settle the host of arguments about what boundaries to seek. This approach swaps one hard question (what are species?) for another (what's an evolutionary individual?), as is the case with most or all of the other proposed solutions to date.


Having rejected the solution, I would now like to reject the problem.

That, actually, has pretty much been the history of Anglo-Saxon analytic philosophy, from G. E. Moore on out:  you don’t solve a problem; you unmask it as metaphysical (or some other handy word), and dissolve it.

[Update 26 May 2013]  Even more radically rejectionist is What Darwin Got Wrong (2011), by Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini.

The latter author (who largely wrote the former half) reviews (p. 57) the entities that have been proposed as the axis upon which all selection turns:

Pleas have been made … for revising the traditional neo-Darwinian thinking that either the individual, or the population as a whole, are the sole units of selection.   There are selective processes … also at the level of genes, chromosomes, whole genomes, whole epigenomes, cells, developing tissues, kin groups, societies and communities;  and, of course, organisms and populations.

(Notice that he doesn’t even mention “species”, as in The Origin of Species, yo?)

The former author, laying about him with a broadsword, writes (p. 126)

Phenotypes aren’t bundles of traits; they’re more like fusions of traits.  Prima facie, the units of phenotypic charge are whole phenotypes.

Compare the famous hyperholistic thrown-gauntlet of Quine: “The unit of empirical significance is the whole of science”.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

No-Go Zones

I used to be Editor-in-Chief at Franklin Electronic Publishers.  We specialized in educational materials, especially dictionaries.   Under the invigorating if sometimes idiosyncratic leadership of its CEO  Mort David, the company undertook to revive the bankrupt Franklin Computer (which made Apple clones, and was slain by Apple in the courts, in a classic B-school case, bearing certain interesting parallels to the Stuxnet virus -- but that would lead us into deeper waters), debuted the “Spelling Ace”,  basically invented the E-book before the term was coined, and eventually hit the skids, in part owing to a sophisticated but overambitous and premature (“before its time”) project for a general handheld reader platform;  had it succeeded, we would all be saying “Bookman” instead of “Kindle” (or, if I had had my way at the christening, “Koala”:  interesting that Amazon eventually came to a similar conclusion, cf. Kindl, Austrian for ‘little child’ -- i.e., koala).  But in the meantime, the company undertook some quite innovative projects, never simply plunking an existing work onto a handheld electronic platform and allowing you to scroll, but bringing to the table a wide range of linguistic value-addeds, and occasionally even authoring a work, if such did not exist in print.

One such -- or rather, family of such -- involved the Oxford ESL dictionaries: the Oxford Students Dictionary, and the flagship OALD.   We began by licensing the former, and then targeted them to specific audiences by adding translations in Arabic, Persian, etc.  I oversaw some of these efforts.   The Arabic went smoothly and sold well.   The Persian … well, I don’t know Persian, so that was more difficult.   A Princeton resident myself, I wrote to a Princeton professor of Persian, asking for recommendations for local translators, and in reply received hate-mail:  IT’S NOT PERSIAN YOU IGNORAMUS IT’S FARSI.  (Or perhaps it was the other way around:  perhaps I called it “Farsi” and that pushed his brightred hotbutton, who knows or cares.)  So I had to wing it, hiring a Farsi-speaker -- educated and intelligent, but not a trained lexicographer -- and had him submit a sample.  Then, as quality-control, I hired a second such native-speaker to evaluate the efforts of the first;  and was informed that the first translator was an illiterate non compos mentis; she then submitted her own counter-sample.  Disheartened, I hired a third to evaluate both these efforts, and was told that their combined ignorance was like Pelion piled upon Ossa, or Ossa upon Pelion (I can never remember which).   As the proverb has it:  Two of a trade  do not agree.
Anyhow -- longstoryshort -- the project was eventually completed, but never turned into a product, because of the ban on trade with Iran.   There were certain exceptions, but we wound up not qualifying.   Now, this was bone-headed:  how could it possibly not be in our national interest to teach English (and, along with it, English cultural assumptions) to Iranians?  But so it fell out.

After that fiasco, I paid a bit more attention to the legal language surrounding our efforts.  And one odd bit that kept coming up was that our products, offers, etc., were valid pretty much throughout the known universe, with the exception of …. Hades; Planet X; and (my memory may be a bit off on those, but not on the memorable next one) “Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan”.

Wh- wh-  whhhhaaatt ???
-- Sic.  You were perfectly at liberty to sell our electronic reference products in Afghanistan, thus spreading far and wide the message of American free enterprise, and disseminating knowledge in the form of dictionaries, Bibles, and encyclopedias;  but before you could close the deal, you had to ask the headman of the particular village you were dealing with, “Um, who controls your hamlet?”  And if he replied:  “The Nazis”, or “The Illuminati” or “Giant Reptiles from Mars”, you were good to go.  But if he replied “The Taliban”, then no dice.
Now, at that time, there were many regimes on the globe, more evil than the Taliban -- the Taliban being, after all, sincere if extreme representatives of one of the major Abrahamic religions, and who  if nothing else  did keep the heroin production down -- yet these were singled out.  Why? 
I’ll hazard a guess -- subject to correction, but it is seldom you will see anyone comment upon this strange embargo, let alone explain it --  :  the Taliban had ticked off American feminists.    The issue was obscure enough that the Bryn Mawr lobby could have its way, unopposed and almost unnoticed.
That would all be but a footnote to farce, but for the circumstance that Usama bin Ladin subsequently pitched his tent on Afghan soil.   His band of carpet-baggers had never been sponsored by the Taliban, with whom they lived in uneasy coexistence (al-Qaeda tends to screw up any nation it enters), yet, when we (justly, and inevitably) retaliated for 9/11, instead of zooming in on al-Qaeda, the Bush administration allowed them to escape, and instead ousted the Taliban, thus eventually restoring Afghanistan to its coveted place as #1 supplier of opium to Europe:  as though Hillary, rather than Condaleeza (though perhaps her too) had been the éminence grise (or: éminence rose) behind this folly of a policy.


What prompted these musings and effusions  was actually this morning’s New Yorker, in their wonderful “Cartoon Caption Contest” section at the very end of the magazine (a tasty dessert, saving the best till last).   The cartoon, offered captionless in an earlier issue, was of Noah and his wife on the Ark -- which was filled to capacity with nothing but giraffes.  Clearly the best in the roster of proposed captions was one from  Ms. Mary Newell, of Gainesville, Florida:

“Mistakes were made.”

This naturally put me in mind of the sorry legacy of the Dubya administration.   But what really caught my eye  was a startling geographical restriction on entering or even voting in the contest:

“Any resident of the United States, Canada (except Quebec), Australia, the United Kingdom, or the Republic of Ireland…”

So, Quebec is to Canada what the Taliban-controlled regions were to Afghanistan.

But look more closely at this list.  Roughly, it corresponds to the Anglosphere.   But so, roughly -- and very politically -- does the territory known to the IC as “Five Eyes” (or at least, so I was told by a friend who heard it from a guy who thinks he maybe saw it on the Internet).   But with this difference:  the addition of the Republic of Ireland, and the exclusion of New Zealand. 
Excluding Ireland from your intel distro  sort of makes sense -- the place is overrun by excitable unreliable Irishmen.  But why play favorites in a frigging Cartoon Caption Contest?  There aren’t even any cash prizes, just boasting rights.    Moreover -- Would it really be so terrible if some Dane or Dutchman were to enter the contest?  Most of them speak better English than we do; but if, perchance, their entry were linguistically limping, it simply wouldn’t win:  no harm done.

Try as I might, I can conceive of no picturesquely sinister reason for The New Yorker’s oddly gerrymandered geographical limitations.    So the best I can do  -- if it’s dark conspiracy you desire, wheels within (wheels within) wheels --- is to point you to a vast tentacular plot, so clandestine that it has not a name, nor even a covername, but only an alias for a nickname for a nom de guerre of a coverterm:

Enter those who dare …

[Bonus tidbit]  A near-synonym of “no-go zone”, current in the IC, is:  denied territory.   Impress your friends!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Doctor Justice Strikes it Rich !!!

In an immediate and stinging response to Yahoo’s ham-handed acquisition of Tumblr for $1.1 billion, a corporate giant which for now must remain nameless  but which rhymes with “Schmoogle”  has bid a reported $1.2 trillion for The World of Dr Justice.  Predictably, riots have broken out in the streets.

In the words of a spokesperson for the corporation whose name also rhymes with “Bloogle”:

In clumsily acquiring Tumblr, Yahoo has purchased nothing but 100 million “eyeballs”.   Who wants eyeballs?  Yuk -- disgusting.
What is needed is synapses -- sleek, intelligent nets of neurons.  And this is what you’ll find at WDJ.    From Trinitarian Minimalism  to Cantorian Realism,  from penguins to hamsters, the World of Dr Justice  is the cream of the (as the French put it) crème.

Details of the pact have yet to be worked out, but the basic outlines of the deal seem certain.  (At least, assuming that the offer someone left on my answering-machine wasn’t just some prank or hoax.)

[Flash update -- 22 May 2013]   The corporation not-quite-known-as “Fnoogle” has unexpectedly withdrawn from the bidding  as its offer was suddenly trumped by that of a shadowy entity known only by the covername “Urysohn”.  Details when these become available.