Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Grammar vs. Gain

From the Post:
That slogan [The Democratic Party motto for 2006] -- "Together, America Can Do Better" -- was revived from the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry. [T]here is an effort afoot to drop the word "together." It tests well in focus groups and audiences, Democratic sources said, but it makes the syntax incorrect.

My kind of party!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

For an extended definition of tomorrow

Ashvin reminds me that I was meant to post over a week ago with information about how my qual went. Even if I didn't post the day after the qual, I really should have once the results were announced. Anyway, I passed! Thanks to everyone for the good-luch messages, prayers, special qual lunch on the fateful day, and everything else.

Thursday, February 16, 2006


For my two-and-a-half readers who don't already know this, I'm taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams tomorrow. This has been the main reason excuse I've had for not blogging recently. I'll post again tomorrow with information about how it went.

An Iraq story

Via Andrew Sullivan, I found this MSNBC article on the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's tour of Iraq. I blogged about the 3rd ACR right before they began their tour. Actually, I wrote about its commanding officer, Col. H. R. McMaster, who I always thought was going to be a star.
U.S. military experts conducting an internal review of the three dozen major U.S. brigades, battalions and similar units operating in Iraq in 2005 privately concluded that of all those units, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment performed the best at counterinsurgency.
The regiment's campaign began in Colorado in June 2004, when Col. H. R. McMaster took command and began to train the unit to return to Iraq.
"Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy," McMaster said he told every soldier in his command.
One out of every 10 soldiers received a three-week course in conversational Arabic, so that each small unit would have someone capable of basic exchanges with Iraqis. [McMaster] distributed a lengthy reading list to his officers that included studies of Arab and Iraqi history and most of the classic texts on counterinsurgency.
None of the soldiers from the unit have been charged with abuse during the regiment's current tour in Iraq.

The 3rd ACR was also among the first units to implement a clear-and-hold strategy. It seems to have worked; the city of Tall Afar now has 1400 police officers and 2000 Iraqi troops. The frequency of attacks has declined six-fold, and the townspeople often notify the Americans when they see explosives being planted. Perhaps most telling of all, the city's mayor is begging the 3rd ACR to stay; other American troops will arrive to replace them as they return to the US, but he does not expect the replacements will merit his trust and respect to the same extent.

Incidentally, the only thing preventing the regiment's success from being replicated elsewhere in Iraq is an insufficient number of troops. If Gen. Eric Shinseki's advice had been taken before the invasion, many of the problems Iraq is facing might not exist.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

This is unbelievable

CNN is carrying an article on a study on the 'literacy' of (American) college students. There were three types of skills measured: [the ability to analyze] news stories and other prose, understand documents and [the] math skills needed for checkbooks or restaurant tips. The results were dismal, to say the least. They found that more than 75% and 50% of students at two- and four-year colleges lacked the ability to handle complex, real-life tasks. (Even with a very generous definition of 'complex'.)

Large numbers of students "cannot interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, compare credit card offers with different interest rates and annual fees or summarize results of a survey about parental involvement in school. Most students... showed intermediate skills. That means they can do moderately challenging tasks, such as identifying a location on a map."

I'm sorry, but identifying a location on a map is an 'intermediate skill' for students about to graduate from college? You would expect an eighth-grader to do that! But wait, there's "brighter news. Overall, the average literacy of college students is significantly higher than that of adults across the nation. Study leaders said that was encouraging but not surprising, given that the spectrum of adults includes those with much less education." If the reporters needed study leaders to tell them that, then clearly it's not just college students who have trouble understanding the results of surveys. (Ok, that was a cheap shot. But still, who on earth would consider that good news?)

Ok, done ranting.
Via Slashdot.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

If you haven't seen it already...

... the Times is running The Face and Voice of Civilian Sacrifice in Iraq, a collection of photos of civilians who survived attacks, or had their families and lives shattered.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Notes on News, continued

I promised in my last-but-one post to explain why I like the New York Times so. (And while we're on the subject of lasts-but-one, did you know that 'antepenultimate' was a word? It means what you'd expect: before the next-to-last in a sequence. If referring to a specific item of the sequence, it means the one third from the end. I only learned this two days ago, but it got me curious. Who coined this word, and why? Ok, end of digression.)

I suppose that the reason I love the Times is that one can. Let me explain that: I grew up with The Hindu and I still enjoy reading it, but one couldn't love the Hindu; it's too impersonal. There's no magic to it; it reports the news, and that's it. While tabloids are at one extreme, the Hindu is at the other. I don't mean that I'm interested in the love lives of celebrities, far from it! But reading the Hindu, one feels that every trace of character has been excised. Young World and the Sunday magazine section were exceptions, but by and large the paper just sticks to the facts. In contrast, the Times has a distinct personality, a delightful one. There are two things I find particularly endearing.

First, the editorial observers and similar contributors. Verlyn Klinkenborg, in particular, is the perfect observer; his pieces have just the right touch of wonder as he describes the little things he notices, the things that most of us simply don't see. Recent articles that stand out in my mind have described riding the train into Grand Central station, driving across western America, and the pace of life on his farm. Today, at the end of the year, the Times had six poets write for the feature Closing Time.Two days ago, Nora Ephron wrote about her quest for long-lost Cabbage Strudel. A newspaper which can publish a 2-page article on cabbage strudel can't possibly take itself too seriously.

Then there are the short-term guest columnists. This month, Alexander McCall Smith is writing The Adventures of an Itinerant Scotsman, and in November, graphic artist Marjane Satrapi wrote (and drew) An Iranian in Paris. These posts are witty, whimsical, and full of joy in life. Last week, the transit strike in New York City left millions of New Yorkers with inadequate transportation. Alongside detailed coverage of the strike, reports on negotiations, and advice for commuters, the Times featured Scenes from a Strike-Bound City, in which local writers described how the strike affected their lives in a series of little vignettes on cycling to a poker game across town, dealing with the fact that the pizza didn't show up because there was a huge backlog of deliveries, and much else.

Second, the multi-page, 5000+ word stories that draw you in and keep you at the screen clicking 'next' until you're done. They could be about anything at all: news and analysis of current events, or from trends in the New York restaurant scene to economic trends in the past quarter, from the Science and Technology sections, or the Arts, or 'Home & Garden'. Invariably well-written and instantly engaging, they're also a great way to learn about a subject you knew nothing about. I've linked to a couple in the past, on the Orange revolution in Ukraine and Social security. Also, there are series that cover different aspects of a subject; the most recent have been about the struggle to create a modern legal system in China, and gold mining.

And that's why, every morning, the first thing I do is roll out of bed, turn on the computer, open Opera, and look at the New York Times homepage.

It snowed today...

for about an hour. Big flakes that whirled madly in the wind, then settled softly and quickly carpeted the lawn, the streets, and the parking lot next door. Completely unlike our usual light flurries, or the little snowflakes that pelt down for hours. I hurried home from the library, to get my camera before sunset. I was just a little too late, and so I sat by the window as night fell, watching the wild dance of the snow.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Notes on News

I'm a news junkie. I read at least two (online) newspapers every day: the New York Times and the Washington Post. I also sometimes browse through the online versions of the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune, to say nothing of the host of blogs and other news sites I religiously visit every day. A day seems incomplete without a quick morning fix and some time in the evening to relax and look up anything I missed.

Lakshmi tells me I even write like a newspaper sometimes. (She's right; look at the last two sentences of your previous post: "But their importance entitles them to a fair debate, and they should each receive a vote on their merits. Bundling them into one omnibus bill serves no one's interest." I rest my case. -ed.)

If you're still reading, I warn you that this post doesn't really have a point; I'm just going to ramble a little.

I was thinking this evening about the two newspapers I read most often, and the differences between them. The first thing I look at is the op-ed section, and the Post is miles ahead of the Times here. The editorials of both are comparable, but the columnists aren't in the same league. The Times line-up:

- Nicholas Kristof, probably the most sincere writer I read regularly. His concern for the genocide in Darfur (and other forms of injustice) is laudable, but I think he writes about it too often. I believe that the Darfur story is underreported in the U.S. media as a whole, but one writer dwelling on it (practically to the exclusion of much else) doesn't do much good; I think it would be safe to assume that after his twentieth story, everyone who reads his columns was aware of the crisis. It's certainly not his fault that the story hasn't caught on and I admire the man for doing everything he can to increase public awareness of the issue, but his Darfur focus detracts from the strength of the op-ed page as a whole.

Actually, that may be one of the chief problems with the Times: It takes a particularly strong and well-balanced opinion section to accommodate a columnist on a crusade, and the Times seems to have too many of those.

- Thomas Friedman, who can mix a metaphor with the best of them. His columns come in four categories: How/why China and India are overtaking America, how conserving energy will solve all the country's problems (reduce the deficit, make people more responsible, reduce global warming, decrease the amount of money flowing to unfriendly regimes such as Iran and Venezuela), what to do in Iraq, and combinations of the first three (such as environmental issues in China and India). While much of what he says makes sense, the repetition of the same basic ideas quickly gets monotonous. And sentences like "The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been — but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned" just make me shudder. Quoting Matt Taibbi: "It's not that he occasionally screws up and fails to make his metaphors and images agree. It's that he always screws it up. He has an anti-ear, and it's absolutely infallible; he is a Joyce or a Flaubert in reverse, incapable of rendering even the smallest details without genius."

- Maureen Dowd, who isn't as shrill as Ann Coulter, but sometimes comes close. Lately, she's become obsessed with 'Dick' (aka 'Vice'). While Dowd does sometimes make me smile, I can't remember the last time she really made me think.

- Paul Krugman, who was something of a disappointment. With his reputation, I was expecting an outstanding column, but he's merely good (except when he strays from economics, when he's only average). His strong dislike for Bush works against him; one sometimes feels that he's not being completely impartial. Daniel Okrent, the then Times Ombudsman wrote: "Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."

While on the subject of Daniel Okrent, his columns as ombudsman were superb; his replacement at the Times, Byron Calame, doesn't write as frequently and isn't nearly as good. The Post's Deborah Howell isn't great, either, so we'll call that a tie.

- Bob Herbert, who does a good job and David Brooks, the token conservative on the page, who is possibly the best the Times has. There's also John Tierney, and Frank Rich, who writes a longer piece once a week on 'the intersection between culture and the news'.

And those are all the columnists. Particularly when one or two of them are on vacation or book leave (which happens fairly often), the page is remarkably bare. The Post, on the other hand, seems to have a rich and diverse opinions section. Conservative writers are better represented, and even though I often don't agree with them, they're almost always worth reading. They make cogent arguments, are intellectually honest, and unafraid to attack the administration when they think it's wrong.

Of the Post columnists, Anne Applebaum, Richard Cohen, Charles Krauthammer, William Raspberry (who is, sadly, retiring) and George Will are uniformly excellent. Eugene Robinson and E. J. Dionne are also good. Then there are several contributors who write about once a week: Michael Kinsley, who used to be editor of the editorial/opinions page at the LA Times is my favourite. Colbert King, Robert Samuelson, David Ignatius, David Broder, Harold Meyerson, Sebastian Mallaby and Jim Hoagland all do a fair job. It rarely happens that none of the Post columns gives me something to think about. Further, the Post gets a fair number of political figures to contribute to their opinions page. Today, for example, there's an article by Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownback. I've read at least three columns by Kofi Annan, and several by heads of state and ministers from other countries.

Another difference between the newspapers is their approach to the Internet. The Times seems to want nothing to do with it. I'm currently paying $50 a year for TimesSelect, which essentially gives me the right to read their columnists. I also have access to the archives, which I don't really want, though the one time I did want an archived article, the website refused to show it to me (but it decremented the total number of archived articles I could access). Besides making me pay to read news (a sure way to drive away online readers), the Times site makes me deal with annoying ads: both banners, and occasional full-screen videos.

The Post, by contrast, has welcomed their internet readers, setting up washingtonpost.com as a separate company. They have added content online, with frequent video feeds of breaking news, and 'The Debate' with Emily Messner (a forum in which Messner posts about a controversial topic, and users discuss it in the comments thread). The Post also experimented with a blog, cross-posting Andrew Sullivan's posts for a week, and finally settling down with Joel Achenbach's Achenblog. Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing - a round-up of articles, columns, and Froomkin's thoughts about White House activities - is also very good. Best of all are the 'Live Online' discussions, where the author of a Post article or opinion piece will answer questions from washingtonpost.com readers for an hour. Recent victims have been Judge Richard Posner and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

And yet, I like the Times better than the Post. An explanation will have to wait until later, because I've already spent too much time writing this evening.