Taking Credit for Mediocrity

November 30, 2007

On my drive home from work yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about mobile phone giant Verizon’s plans to make their network more open to different types of wireless devices. I was happy to hear the news, because I think that the result will benefit both Verizon and consumers. I was completely blown away, however, to hear Verizon announcing this decision as if it were some kind of new, ground-breaking approach and NPR reporting on it as if they were right.

The gist of the announcement is that Verizon will soon make their services available to customers who have not purchased a phone directly from Verizon. This means that you could buy any phone you wanted, be it a mobile phone you’d carry in your pocket or a mobile broadband card you’d plug into your laptop computer, and use it to connect to Verizon’s service in order to make calls. This is a major shift in the way that Verizon has done business in the past, where in order to use their services you were more or less required to buy a phone from the company.

By opening up their network in this way, Verizon hopes to encourage a much wider range of devices to connect to their service. They envision a day when you might be able to make a call to your oven over their wireless service and tell it to begin preheating before you left the office so that your dinner would be hot by the time you got home, to note just one example from the NPR story. In order to make up for the loss of revenue they would have previously earned by selling you a phone, the company will likely charge higher rates to customers who use their own devices, but this does offer more choice and flexibility to consumers while allowing the company a new source of potential revenue.

This is all fine and good. I heartily congratulate Verizon for making what seems to me to be a very good decision. In spite of this enthusiasm, I remain shocked and offended that anyone would be impressed by such a basic thing.

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Blogroll Addition Extravaganza!

November 29, 2007

Okay, it’s been a while since I pointed out additions to the blogroll, and it appears that the advent of allergy/asthma/holiday/exam/video game season is cutting into our collective writing, so, if you find youself without fresh geekings to read here, try these other fine blogs.

Blogs by Grinnellians

Bittersweet, the personal blog of our friend Molly, a (currently) former middle school teacher and aspiring YA novel author. She blogs about life, books, dogs, and often posts very realistic criticisms of our public education system.

Brood, the always amusing blog of Sarah Aswell, MFA, former writer for Grinnell’s campus paper, current minion for the publishing industry, and part-time (working toward full-time) journalistic writer for a variety of publications. She has several ongoing features on her blog, including “Sarah vs. Britney Spears,” “Ripley: Cat on a Diet,” “Lifetime Movie Reviews,” and, of course, book reviews. You can peruse a list of her published articles here.

Puffery is yet another blog featuring our own kidsilkhaze/Jennie. It’s amazing she has time to keep up with all this blogging! Puffery is actually a group blog, too, again with mostly Grinnellians, about beauty and bath products. If you’re a girl who wants to acknowledge your girly side and get some practical advice about what and what not to buy, go read! If you’re a boy who wonders what all the fuss is about all this girly stuff, go read! Moisturizer, makeup, bubble bath, shampoo, soap… they’ve got it all.

Sports Guy Talkin’ Crazy Again, a blog by a Grinnell English professor. It is, as he describes it, “Erik Simpson’s commentary on the way people talk about sports.” Only updated as often as Simpson notices people saying something interesting about sports, but when it’s updated, it’s always good. (His non-sports blog is Underlying Logic.)

Blogs by Other Worthy People

The following are blogs by recognizable famous journalist authors that you may already be reading, but if you aren’t, you should check out.

gladwell.com is Malcolm Gladwell’s blog. Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point and Blink, and writes regularly for the New Yorker magazine. He blogs, as he writes, on a wide variety of interesting subjects.

The Loom is Carl Zimmer’s science blog. Zimmer is a science writer who focuses on evolutionary biology. He is the author of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Parasite Rex, Soul Made Flesh, At the Water’s Edge, and The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. He also writes for the New York Times, National Geographic, Wired, and numerous other magazines.

Relatedly, From A to Zimmer is written by Carl’s brother, Ben Zimmer, a linguist who also writes for Language Log. From A to Zimmer is his column on the Oxford University Press blog. Mmmmm, linguistics and etymology.

Growing Pains

November 26, 2007

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, I have been assigned my yearly task by my grandmother of getting my Christmas list together for distribution to whichever unlucky cousin drew my name this year. I did so today, and given that Christmas is pretty much all about being a celebration of childhood and pretty lights for me, it served to highlight some of the changes of adulthood:

It is now hard to think of things to put on a list! I now dislike putting big and/or impractical things on my list because I know I’ll have to pack and move them the next time I change dwellings. None of the things I put down are toys. Very few of the things I put down are fun.

I actually started thinking about signs of becoming a grown-up right after Halloween, when a friend said that she must be growing up because she’ll now eat the Special Dark chocolate pieces in the Halloween candy. I polled more friends, and here’s the list we came up with:

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The Writer’s Strike and Restructuring

November 21, 2007

Most people know I’m a big fan of stories and such. I love television and movies, I love editing the bad ones in my head and watching well crafted ones created. I’ve been watching the writer’s guild strike with some interest, not for the impact on current shows and projects, though I really hope the Daily Show returns soon, but for the broader impact it will have on the industry in the future. One of the reasons the studios are fighting so hard on this strike is that more potential strikes are on the horizon with the actor’s and director’s contracts coming up for negotiation. If the studios can ‘win’ this strike they’ll be going into those contract negotiations with a big tactical advantage.

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Flappers, Sluts and Beauty Queens

November 20, 2007

I attended a recent presentation in Berlin entitled “Femmes Fatales: Japanese Bathing Beauties, Berlin Flappers and America’s Teenaged Sluts.” Three scholar/authors presented their research on the aforementioned female groups. First came Uta Poiger, who spoke on European attitudes towards color cosmetics and their advertisement in the inter-war period. Then Emily White, an editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, read from her book on the myth of the high-school slut. Finally, Jan Bardsley spoke on the first Japanese Miss Universe in 1959. While wildly diverse, each presentation touched upon the tension between natural and artificial beauty, upon the simultaneous admiration and distrust of beautiful women, upon the cultural and behavioral bounds in which women find themselves trapped.

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Digital books: Yea or nay?

November 19, 2007

Amazon announced the release of the Kindle today, the Kindle being their new digital reading device. (Actually, it appears it is officially referred to as not “the Kindle,” but just “Kindle.” How awkward. I suspect that won’t last.) Anyway, it is, in any case, a new attempt to create a workable digital book that people will actually use for more than a few months, before they put it down as a curiosity and go back to reading real, physical books.

Now, I have to admit, the descriptions of this thing that I heard on NPRon my drive home sound pretty good. It’s not backlit, which will presumably cut down on the “I stare at a flickering screen all day already, this gives me a headache” factor. It uses digital paper with electronic “ink” dots that rearrange themselves when you “turn” the page and then go inert. It can also purportedly store up to 200 books in its memory, and can download more wirelessly.

I’m not really sure how I feel about this. I admit, when I heard it could store 200 books, I briefly entertained a vision of reducing all my bookshelves and piles of books all around the house into three or four Kindles. How futuristic! How sci-fi! If I were going to be moving abroad a lot again, I’d be sorely, sorely tempted. Plus, no more trips to the used bookstore to dispose of all the bestseller mysteries I’ll never read more than once.

But what about the books? Here’s what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos says about his vision for (the) Kindle in the letter he posted on Amazon’s front page today:

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Why I’m a bad linguist

November 16, 2007

While perusing the news this morning, I came across this article: Split imperils Mexican language. The first paragraph sums up the issue nicely. (Actually, as is typical of BBC news articles, the opening paragraph is actually just a sentence. Why did I even bother to teach my ESL students that a paragraph should usually be at least three sentences?)

An indigenous language in southern Mexico is in danger of disappearing because its last two speakers have stopped talking to one another.

The situation itself is rather comedic, but of course the rest of the article goes on to highlight serious and somewhat hysterical facts, such as:

More than 20 of these [indigenous languages of Mexico] are under threat of extinction.


According to the UN, one language disappears across the world every two weeks.

As a person who has nearly gotten actual degrees in linguistics twice (and does at least have language and linguistic-related degrees), I get these kinds of articles forwarded to me a lot by friends wanting to know what I think about language death. I know that I am supposed to be horrified. All that knowledge we are losing! A whole language, gone, dead, never to return! And of course, some part of me is saddened by the situation.

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Human Rights: the Price of Doing Business in China?

November 13, 2007

Internet giant Yahoo! announced today that they were settling a lawsuit brought against the company by the World Organization for Human Rights. The suit was brought on behalf of several Chinese citizens who were arrested after Yahoo turned over documents revealing their email and I.P. addresses to the Chinese authorities. The suit alleges that at least several of them were tortured in prison, as well as receiving hefty sentences for publishing pro-democracy literature online. In the settlement, Yahoo has agreed to pay the WOHR’s legal expenses, and although the other details of the settlement are to remain private, Yahoo has stated that they include helping the families of the people who were detained.

Yahoo was called before the United States Congress earlier this month and roundly criticized for handing over the documents. In their own defense, Yahoo has stated that their Chinese subsidiary had no choice but to comply with Chinese law and hand over whatever information the local authorities required of them. “Defendants cannot be expected,” their brief reads, “let alone ordered to violate another nation’s laws.”

This case is hardly the first instance of this kind of issue for an American firm operating an internet business in China. It will surely not be the last. The involvement of the Congress and the attendant publicity over this particular case, however, make now an excellent time to consider the very important issues that these types of cases raise.

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The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month

November 12, 2007


Yesterday, I was standing in my backyard and heard what I thought was artillery fire from the nearby army base. After a few moments, I realized that no, it wasn’t from the base. Instead, it was probably a 21 gun salute at Arlington National Cemetery, probably a memorial for Veteran’s Day.

I thought I’d introduce a new feature, in which I recommend books, movies and other things on a particular topic. What better topic to start off with than WWI? November 11th is remembered all over the Western world as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day, or Veteran’s Day. All over large portions of the world, we wear red poppies to remember Flander’s Field. But, in the US, WWI is so often overlooked.

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How Much Is Your Idealism Worth?

November 11, 2007

As a current job-seeker, I am especially sensitive to the market for recent graduates. Since I’m looking at a lot of do-gooder organizations, I somewhat expect that wages in such positions don’t keep pace with business or government positions. But how much of a cut am I supposed to accept in order to do “fulfilling” work?

What got me riled this time was this fellowship, a one-year position that offers $20,000 to recent graduates of undergrad or graduate programs (no differential for the latter’s further educational experience) or to activists with work experience who would benefit from a research-oriented environment. That sum is to live in Washington D.C., a city where rent can easily equal what the organization is paying as a monthly wage. Unlike many other organizations offering meager salaries, this one doesn’t make it up in free housing or elaborate benefits either. I don’t mean to single them out, because they are by no means the only ones exploiting young people. This is long common and accepted practice in the competitive world of internships; the question is how far it will extend into the world of employment, of qualified people who should be able to support themselves.

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