Thursday, June 28, 2007

Watching Democrats Debate

Courtesy of the Media Bloggers Association, I will be attending tonight's Democratic presidential debate sponsored by PBS. Should be an interesting affair.

You can catch my postings over at Ace of Spades HQ.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Struggle Against Islam, Winnable Only by a Democrat?

Glenn Reynolds:
Frankly, I think the best argument for electing a Democrat as President is that as long as a Republican is in office the media powers-that-be will refuse to condemn even the worst atrocities on the part of Islamists, for fear of helping the real enemy in the White House
I'd have to agree. Democrats have been blinded by partisanship so much that they really have lost site of the very real fact that Islamic terrorism will be a world-wide force regardless of which party has the White House. It is the height of stupidity and arrogance to even suggest that Iraq or George Bush have made violent Islamists hate America. Osama bin Laden and his ilk despise the West because we're not Muslim. He feels similarly about Muslims who do not share his particular brand of Wahhabi Islam.

It's arguable whether America's political leadership ought to be stating this fact on a regular basis; it's essential that they operate with this assumption, however.

Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only a Democrat can defeat radical Islam. At this point, Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson are the only Democratic candidates who realize this.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Matt TV: Fox and Friends

Last week, I was on FNC's "Fox and Friends" to discuss the fired CNN reporter Jeff Koinange. He was accused (and apparently fired for although CNN hasn't officially commented) of staging a news story and also using company resources to conduct an affair with a woman who was supposed to be a story source.

Here's the video:

Journalism's Faulty Paradigm

Yesterday, OpinionJournal featured an fantastic essay (found via Ace) from critic James Bowman about the faulty paradigm that modern journalism has embraced, the idea that "getting the facts right" ought to be the foremost goal of government.

It's a ridiculous premise, Bowman argues, because that isn't what government is supposed to do. In an imperfect world populated by imperfect humans, mistakes and errors are inevitable. What ought to matter most is how governments learn from miscalculations and their will to pursue the important tasks we expect them to.

This odd prejudice may be partly owing to the huge social premium we put on intelligence in the era of the cognitive elite. People who have no idea on earth what to do about the war or any of the problems we face as a nation think it is some kind of program to ridicule the intelligence of the President. Even the political opposition has fallen into this trap by making mere perspicacity in the anticipation of evils rather than the determined effort to combat them its test of political success. Thus in Sen. Jim Webb's reply to the president's State of the Union Address in January, he had no alternative to suggest to the measures for dealing with Iraq that had been proposed, but he was full of indignation on the grounds that the mistakes of the administration had been foreseeable. He knew that they were foreseeable because he himself had foreseen them. The implication was that he was much cleverer than President Bush--as if that was all that need be said to the credit of the former and the discredit of the latter.

The fact that the opposition and the media frame the debate in this way means that much of the administration's energies have to be expended in defending itself against endless second-guessing, which in turn means that it is even less inclined to recognize and correct mistakes. This is infantile politics. Meanwhile, on the question of what is now to be done about the mistakes, no one seems to know any better than Sen. Webb, whose policy amounts to saying that we ought not to have made them in the first place. This is also the view of much of the Democratic Party, and almost all of the media, who repeat mechanically that we need a "change of course" in Iraq but never get around to telling us what they would change--short of surrendering, which is now becoming the default option.

This problem has its roots in that the press has flip-flopped on how it views war. Before the 20th century, war was something that was glossed over and even glorified by the press. That changed with the Vietnam War. Bowman writes:

There is also a paradox involved in the romance of exposing falsehood, for romance is itself a kind of falsehood. It may be a hopeful and a benign sort of falsehood, but it is still ineluctably false. By its very nature romance amounts to an exaggeration or glorification of what, looked at more closely, is at best mundane and at worst ugly or disreputable. Journalists, like novelists and filmmakers, used to romanticize warfare by closing their eyes to much of the horror of it; now they romanticize the victims of war and so undermine war's foundations by looking at nothing but its horrors. In the media's reporting of war, honor and glory have become at least as invisible as the ghastly flow of blood and viscera once were to their predecessors. Nowadays, any journalist who wants to succeed knows he is in the business not of celebrating honor or trust or heroism but of exposing whatever sordid realities may be found (or invented) beneath the appearances of those things. And if the romantic prize is now awarded to those who tell tales of war's evils, why should we not suppose that the supply of those evils will rise to meet the journalistic demand, just as the supply of heroes rose when the demand was for tales of heroism?

No fearless truth-teller that I know of has ever troubled to ask this question, let alone to answer it, for to do so would be to call into question the one unquestionable article of faith in the journalist's credo, namely his own "objectivity." Never mind the philosophical crudeness of this model of the media as a mirror in which realities are merely reflected. The transparency of the process, the neutrality of the observer in mediating for us the things he has observed must be insisted upon--barring occasional slips like the use of the word "romantic" above--at all costs if the journalist is to retain the authority he needs to be able to say with David Halberstam to the mighty of the earth: "You lie." Without that authority, what hope of joining Halberstam in the Pantheon of celebrity along with Gable and Hepburn? Yet that objectivity and that authority are themselves lies whose foundational nature preserves them from scrutiny even when the part the media play in shaping events--see, for instance, "Biased Sensationalism" in The New Criterion of December 2006--or being manipulated by others to shape events is obvious to anyone without a stake in the pursuit of journalistic glory.

Halberstam's old employer, the New York Times, took the occasion of his death to run a piece by Dexter Filkins, who writes for the paper from Iraq, comparing now with then. "During four years of war in Iraq, American reporters on the ground in Baghdad have often found themselves coming under criticism remarkably similar to that which Mr. Halberstam endured: those journalists in Baghdad, so said the Bush administration and its supporters, only reported the bad news. They were dupes of the insurgents. They were cowardly and unpatriotic." Small wonder then that, before he died, Halberstam himself "did not hesitate to compare America's predicament in Iraq to its defeat in Vietnam. And he was not afraid to admit that his views on Iraq had been influenced by his experience in the earlier war. 'I just never thought it was going to work at all,' Mr. Halberstam said of Iraq during a public appearance in New York in January." Yet neither Halberstam nor Mr. Filkins mentions one crucial difference between Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the enemy was militarily formidable even without any assistance from the media. In Iraq, the enemy is militarily weak and can hope to win only by exploiting the media's negativity--and the continuing romance of their role in Vietnam--to make the war seem unwinnable. The role of fearless truth-teller is no longer available, if it ever was. Like it or not, the media are already involved in the action and must pick a side.

Excactly right.

Incidentally, Bowman's piece was originally printed in the New Criterion, a lesser-known but superb conservative journal that is one of my favorite intellectual magazines. Their blog Armavirumque is also an excellent resource and well worth a visit.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Major Developments in Search War

Two interesting search war developments today, one regarding Microsoft and Google:
Microsoft Corp. has agreed to modify its Windows Vista operating system in response to a complaint that its computer search function put Google Inc. and other potential rivals at a disadvantage, the Justice Department and Microsoft said on Tuesday.

Under an agreement with the department and 17 state attorneys general and the District of Columbia, will build into Vista an option to let users select a default desktop search program on personal computers running Windows.

The function, known as "Instant Search," allows Windows users to enter a search query and get a list of results from their hard drive that contain the search term.

The agreement was made public as part of a joint report that the Justice Department and Microsoft filed late on Tuesday with the court overseeing Microsoft's compliance with a 2002 antitrust consent decree.

As part of the deal, a Microsoft official said the company also had pledged to place links inside the Internet Explorer window and the "Start" navigation menu to make it easier for people to access that default desktop search service.

The changes will be introduced in a service pack, or updated version of Windows Vista software. Microsoft said it anticipates a test version of the Vista Service Pack 1 to be ready by the year-end. [...]

The changes stem from a complaint Google filed with the Justice Department in December, in which it argued that a feature built into Vista that allows users to search a computer's hard drive did not leave room for competition from other desktop search applications.
The second involves Yahoo, Myspace and News Corp:

News Corporation has discussed swapping MySpace, its internet social networking unit, with Yahoo! in return for a 30 per cent stake in the enlarged group.

The discussions remain tentative and could collapse after the departure of Terry Semel as Yahoo!’s chief executive and his replacement by Jerry Yang this week. Mr Yang, co-founder of Yahoo! and incoming chief executive, yesterday pledged to “dig in” to his new role, and acknowledged the difficult task he faces to arrest the decline in the internet portal’s shares.

News Corp, the parent company of The Times, is interested in a deal even if it means losing some control of MySpace because it would give the media group exposure to a far larger internet-based business.

Other News Corp digital assets, including the games network IGN, bought in 2005 for $650 million (£326 million), are also thought to have been offered to Yahoo!.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ethics Without God

Since leaving Mormonism and religion in general (I am not an atheist however), the topic of morality has been one I've often thought about. Where does morality come from? Why should someone be moral? All questions eminently worth asking.

Back when I was a Mormon, I couldn't grasp the idea that a person could be ethical without a belief in the divine. I was very much a believer in Dostoevsky's idea that removing God from the moral equation would make it completely unsolveable.

I was wrong. God is not an integral variable because morality and ethics are actually fully natural phenomena that have developed over millenia. All animals who are gregarious engage in it to varying degrees.

Not stealing the other animal's piece of the kill is an act of morality within the community, as is leaving another member of the pack alone when it is sleeping. Protecting the pack from violent outside force is also an act of morality.

When you are a solitary animal, there is no morality. When there is no society, anything you can do is permissible since you cannot possibly offend or harm anyone who matters to you. Making someone you like sad or wasting someone's time are impossible when there are no other someones.

There are many advantages of being an amoral, solitary being. However, there are also many disadvantages. Two heads are usually better than one and two clubs fighting an animal trying to kill you are certainly better. That is why natural selection has favored those organisms who are social. Morality is merely the rule book that a particular society agrees to play by, both collectively and individually.

As time has gone by, morality has followed its evolutionary impulse. In other words, humankind has continued to develop more optimal forms of morality. This has led to greater greater altruism and better allocation of scarce resources. All of these things are what people generally term "progress." Others call it the "marketplace of ideas."

Once our lower order needs of safety, food, and reproduction were sufficiently men, eventually, human morality evolved to a point where ideas like universal humanity, ethics, compassion, and justice emerged. These ideas are non-religious although in most societies, their development was associated with the emergence of religion.

Ethically speaking, we as humans generally are operating on a paradigm of ethical increase. The longer we're around and the more advanced we become, the more we have turned our attention to refining what we consider to be moral. Examples of this process has been the emergence of secularism, equality for women, and the destigmatization of homosexuality. In terms of moral progress, some people are objectively more advanced than others just as some societies are similarly more evolved.

In the end, though, there is no absolute reason that you "must" be more moral than the minimum required to keep yourself out of jail; that is because we are all self-directed moral agents. Nonetheless, being what modern societies consider a "good person" has many advantages such as friendship, stability in life, love, self-esteem, sex, and reproduction to name a few. People who have trouble grasping or behaving morally always lack one or more of these things.

Then, of course, there is a certain value in moral behavior itself. To always examine one's life and to think often on what it means to do good can be very inspiring and uplifting.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Google, Paper Tiger?

Interesting news:

There was encouraging news for the growing army of Google-haters yesterday when a leading internet advertising researcher suggested that the search engine’s stranglehold on online promotions was looser than he had expected.

Bill Tancer, a research analyst at Hitwise, the internet research firm, said that eBay’s decision to pull all its advertising from Google in the US had had only a small impact on the “traffic” flowing from the search engine to the online auctioneer’s site.

Some 9.6 per cent of eBay visitors came from Google on Tuesday, the first full day that the boycott was in effect, compared with 10.6 per cent on the previous Tuesday, Mr Tancer said.

“Before I pulled the data, I was expecting a bigger drop given the drastic removal of sponsored listing ads by eBay,” he said.

He added that that the impact of eBay’s advertising withdrawal was reduced by the fact that 25 per cent of users visiting the internet auctioneer from Google do so after searching for eBay, rather than by clicking on one of the “sponsored links” that appear next to other search results.

The data suggests that Google may be less powerful than people thought, at a time when the search engine is seeking to widen its empire – and drawing fresh criticism almost every day as a result of its perceived growing dominance.

Overstated somewhat I believe. eBay's traffic from Google comes not from its ads, but from search queries. Were Google to boycott eBay in its search listings by reconfiguring its algorithms to demote eBay listings (in opposite fashion to what it does to promote Wikipedia entries), the auction site's traffic would decrease markedly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Obama's Gender Gap

I wonder to what extent Hillary Clinton's female advantage over Barack Obama will last in the general election:
The consistent lead that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York has maintained over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and others in the race for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination is due largely to one factor: her support from women.

In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, Clinton led Obama by a 2 to 1 margin among female voters. Her 15-point lead in the poll is entirely attributable to that margin. Clinton drew support from 51 percent of the women surveyed, compared with 24 percent who said they supported Obama and 11 percent who said they backed former senator John Edwards of North Carolina.

Clinton is drawing especially strong support from lower-income, lesser-educated women -- voters her campaign strategists describe as "women with needs." Obama, by contrast, is faring better among highly educated women, who his campaign says are interested in elevating the political discourse.

Campaign advisers say they expect Obama to pick up support from all categories of voters once they get to know him better, and that could change the structure of the race. But for now, women appear to be playing an outsized role in shaping it and could tip the scale toward the winner.

In 2004, women made up a majority of the Democratic primary electorate, including between 54 and 59 percent in the early-voting states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

Wireless Electricity

Mark June 2007 on your calendar as a milestone in technology. It will be remembered as the month when wireless electricity, the holy grail of mobile technology finally started to become a reality:

A team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) lit a 60 watt light bulb from a power source two meters away and with no physical connections between the source and the appliance.

The "WiTricity" device--the term coined by the MIT team to describe the wireless power phenomenon--uses magnetic fields to deliver power to the gadgets remotely.

The charger sends power to the gadget using magnetic induction, which is the ability to change a magnetic field to produce an electrical current.

Various methods of transmitting power wirelessly have been known for some time, such as radio waves or Wi-Fi.

But while such examples are excellent for the wireless transmission of information, it is not feasible for substantial power transmissions because radio waves and Wi-Fi radiation spread in all directions and vast amounts of power end up being wasted into free space.

In contrast, WiTricity synchronizes the charger and gadget to exchange energy efficiently without leaking much power to other objects.

WiTricity does this by getting the charger and power-hungry device to connect using magnetic fields at 'coupled resonant frequencies'.

Further geeky details at this link.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

In Search of Porn 2.0

Ars Technica has an interesting article on how the pornography industry, one of the prime technological innovators in the recent years, is having trouble keeping up with the latest technology:

The industry often credited with being the driving force behind (no pun intended) new technologies is now suffering from them. The pornography industry, which has long been growing alongside the Internet since the early days, has hit a wall in recent years. DVD sales and rentals have dropped by 15 to 25 percent in the last year, according to industry estimates, and some believe that it could fall further if the industry doesn't catch up with new online trends.

What's the driving force behind this change? As more and more of the general public comes online, they are finding newer and cheaper ways to get their adult content fix. Just like the masses have flocked to sites like YouTube to watch professional clips from their favorite TV shows, video blogs, crazy stunts, and amateur movies, the adult audience has ditched DVDs and pay-per-view television to flock to similar sites. For example, PornoTube is a user-submitted video site of growing popularity that functions in the same way that YouTube does, complete with free, streaming videos.

Not just that, but increasing broadband speeds and wider adoption means that folks who once merely watched adult content are now able to create and upload it easily to sites like PornoTube for a fraction—or none—of the cost that it takes to make a professional video. "People are making movies in their houses and dragging and dropping them," CEO of adult payment processing site Harvey Kaplan told the New York Times. "It's killing the marketplace."

While online revenue for the professional adult industry has never been something to sneeze at, AVN Media Network's Paul Fishbein added that growth in the online space isn't happening quickly enough to make up for the drop in video sales—USA Today reports that Internet-based pornography sales grew by only 14 percent in the last year. Professional studios told both publications that they are attempting to catch up with the shift in public consumption trends by selling more online downloads and revamping their web sites to be more useable and professional. Some are hoping that the "quality" of their professional videos will win out with the public over those produced by amateurs. "We use good-quality lighting and very good sound," Red Light District president David Joseph told the New York Times, yet the company reports a sales drop of 30 percent over the last two years.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Murdoch Strawman

As the negotiations about whether to sell the Wall Street Journal's parent company appear to be moving along between Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation and the Bancroft family, owners of a special class of stock which gives them control over Dow Jones.

Whenever Murdoch is going hard for a media asset, it inevitably sets off concerns among those on the left (such as the employee unions at Dow Jones) that the purchase of an outlet by News Corp. will somehow comprimise its editorial integrity since Murdoch is a very active manager in his properties. Those concerns seem to be less about editorial process and more about political considerations since Murdoch is far from the only active media mogul.

In an editorial today, the Journal pointed out that Arthur "Pinch" Sulzberger is heavily involved in managing the New York Times:

[T]he Bancrofts are unique in their hands-off ownership. They are often compared as family newspaper proprietors to the Grahams at the Washington Post or the Sulzbergers at the New York Times. But members of those families run those newspapers, exerting influence over the news and opinion operations. In that sense, those newspapers are hardly "independent" of those families.

Everyone knows that the influence of Times Publisher and CEO Arthur Sulzberger Jr. extends to selecting not merely the editorial page editor but columnists, political endorsements and, as far as we can tell, even news coverage priorities. We don't see how this differs from most of what Mr. Murdoch is accused of doing with his newspapers. The same lack of independence also applies to most non-family media companies such as Gannett, a newspaper owner whose make-no-waves corporate ethic turns nearly all of its editorial pages into mush.

Of course, the fact that Pinch deliberately steers his paper in a leftward direction is what makes his corporate control a non-issue in the eyes of the left. The fact is the Bancrofts have been unique in the newspaper business in keeping a hands-off policy for media empire. It's also why I have refrained from criticizing their similarly cushy stock arrangement which gives them control of Dow Jones.

Israeli Editors Gloat Over Media's Power to Push Anti-war Message

Publicly, American media elites often deny that they attempt to influence the national agenda. They're professionals, so the story goes, and completely capable of not letting their personal viewpoints intrude accidentally into their stories. It's laughable given the mountain of evidence to the contrary and the fact that journalists support affirmative action on the grounds that white reporters can't cover minority issues as fairly.

Every so often, however, you hear journalists privately say the complete opposite--that not only do they have the ability to influence news, they also choose to influence it. Such statements are usually more common among the non-American press where the sham of "objectivity" is not perpetrated on the public.

With that in mind, I was still quite surprised to see the following statements said at a panel discussion in Israel on the influence that country's media has had on its foreign policy:

A former Israel Broadcasting Authority news editor admits: "We slanted the news towards a withdrawal from Lebanon - because we had sons there."

Speaking at the Haifa Radio Conference on Monday, several former and current news broadcasters on Voice of Israel and Army Radio discussed the tremendous influence they nearly all agreed they had on Israel's national agenda.

Dr. Chanan Naveh, who edited the Israel Broadcasting Authority radio's news desk in late 1990's and early 2000's, was particularly bombastic about his pervasive reach: "The morning audience, stuck in traffic jams or at work, is simply captive - they're ours." He also mentioned, with no regrets, two examples in which he and his colleagues made a concerted effort to change public opinion:

"Three broadcasters - Carmela Menashe, Shelly Yechimovich [now a Labor party Knesset Member - ed.], and I - pushed in every way possible the withdrawal from Lebanon towards 2000. In our newsroom, three of the editors had sons in Lebanon, and we took it upon ourselves as a mission - possibly not stated - to get the IDF out of Lebanon... I have no doubt that we promoted an agenda of withdrawal that was a matter of public dispute."
At this point, Army Radio broadcaster Golan Yochpaz interrupted, "In my opinion, that is just super-problematic - super-problematic." Naveh did not miss a beat and said, "Correct, I'm admitting it, I'm not apologizing, I'm just saying this is what happened. It came from our guts because of the boys in Lebanon, this is what we did and I'm not sorry... I am very proud that we had a part in getting of our sons out of Lebanon."

It is widely accepted that the withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 under then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the lack of attention paid to the northern border since then led to the Second Lebanon War of last summer and its accompanying 160 military and civilian casualties.

Naveh's boast came towards the end of the panel discussion and was not widely addressed. However, just seconds later, retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, the president of the Israel Press Council, summed up and said that the journalists must show courage and not allow outside influences to affect their ability to influence public opinion:
"You determine the daily agenda and you have the power; the problem is that in your profession, it can't be dealt with properly and ethically without civil courage... You have the power, so use it also to ensure that there is freedom of speech - of course, with the limitation that you must act ethically and not create hostile public opinion, because there is nothing that affects freedom of speech more than hostile public opinion."

Saturday, June 02, 2007

'Temporary Marriage'

Iran, home of one of the most restrictive Islamic governments in the world, has an interesting viewpoint on how to solve the natural "problem" that young people want to have sex--temporary marriages lasting for only a short time.
Iran's interior minister has faced criticism from women activists after advocating the practice of temporary marriage as a way to meet the needs of young people in the Islamic state, which bans extramarital sex.

"Is it possible that Islam is indifferent to a 15-year-old youth into whom God has put lust?" newspapers quoted Interior Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi, who is also a cleric, as telling a religious seminar this week.

Temporary marriage, or sigha, is an agreement between a man and a women to get married for a specified time, even for just a few days. It has long been practised by Shi'ite Muslims, who are dominant in Iran, even though it is unclear how common it is.

Sunni Muslims say it is illegal and akin to prostitution, but some Shi'ites scholars say it reflects the reality of human nature and provides for the rights and responsibilities of both the man and the woman.

"Although temporary marriage has always existed in our law, it is considered improper by Iranian culture," Shadi Sadr, an Iranian activist for women rights, told the ISNA news agency.

That concept may seem strange to many Americans, however, that's only because here in the U.S. because most of us have sufficiently come to more realistic viewpoints about sexuality and relationships. Not everyone is similarly enlightened, however. Friends who have gone to the Mormon-dominated Brigham Young University have told me that it's not uncommon for a young couple to go to Las Vegas and get married and then get divorced quickly, solely for the purpose of having sex.