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 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 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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

How not to legislate

The U.S. Congress never ceases to amaze me. Lately, I've been puzzled by some of the more bizarre procedures and tactics that members of Congress use to pass legislation. From a New York Times article on Dec 14th:
With a budget-cutting measure stymied by stiff resistance to opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, Congressional Republicans began exploring Wednesday a new tactic to win approval of both $45 billion in cuts and the drilling plan.

Lawmakers and senior aides said they were seriously considering tacking the drilling proposal onto a Pentagon spending bill that is among those that must pass before Congress heads home in the next few days... "It's going to be on one bill or the other before I go home," said Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, a leading proponent of opening the Arctic plain to oil production.

Where is the connection between drilling in Alaska and the war in Iraq? The sole reason to combine them (admitted by legislators) is to allow an unpopular proposal to pass.

Sure enough, when the House approved the defense spending bill, the provision to allow drilling in the ANWR was tacked on. Democrats in the Senate then vowed to fight it, using a filibuster (another weird and wonderful practice essentially unique to America) if necessary. A Reuters story in the Times this afternoon quotes Stevens, who intends to stand firm:
"Extreme environmentalists think it (ANWR) is their playground, that they should set the policy for Alaska."

Stevens warned if ANWR is dropped from the defense bill, he would seek to delete other items attached to it such as funding for Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, the bird flu pandemic and a program that helps poor families pay heating bills.

Much as I dislike Stevens, I think he's on to something here (though he has it backwards). In a reasonable world, ANWR would not be part of the defense bill, but nor would Katrina-related funding, or anyone else's pet project. Don't get me wrong; I think that these are all worthy issues: the Government should undoubtedly provide more money to New Orleans and other coastal areas, prepare for a bird flu pandemic, and help poor people who cannot afford heating. 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.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Sullivan on Torture

It would be extremely remiss of me not to link to Andrew Sullivan's excellent essay The Abolition of Torture. It is widely agreed that torture is morally repugnant, besides usually being counter-productive (as it generates little actionable intelligence, and stokes resentment against the torturers). Charles Krauthammer, though, recently defended the practice, arguing that it should be legal to use torture in certain cases, such as the 'ticking-bomb scenario'. In fact, he goes further, arguing that one would be morally compelled to use torture in this situation.

Sullivan's essay was written largely in response to Krauthammer, and he makes the following outstanding point (among many others). Even assuming that all of Krauthammer's conditions apply (there is a terrorist who has planted a nuclear bomb in a major city, he has been captured after planting the bomb but before it goes off, he will divulge the location of the bomb under torture, and that there is no other way to obtain this information):
It is possible to concede that, in [such] an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized. One imperfect but instructive analogy is civil disobedience. In that case, laws are indeed broken, but that does not establish that the laws should be broken. In fact, civil disobedience implies precisely that laws should not be broken, and protesters who engage in it present themselves promptly for imprisonment and legal sanction on exactly those grounds. They do so for demonstrative reasons. They are not saying that laws don't matter. They are saying that laws do matter, that they should be enforced, but that their conscience in this instance demands that they disobey them.

In extremis, a rough parallel can be drawn for a president faced with the kind of horrendous decision on which Krauthammer rests his entire case. What should a president do? The answer is simple: He may have to break the law. In the Krauthammer scenario, a president might well decide that, if the survival of the nation is at stake, he must make an exception. At the same time, he must subject himself--and so must those assigned to conduct the torture--to the consequences of an illegal act. Those guilty of torturing another human being must be punished--or pardoned ex-post-facto. If the torture is revealed to be useless, if the tortured man is shown to have been innocent or ignorant of the information he was tortured to reveal, then those responsible must face the full brunt of the law for, in Krauthammer's words, such a "terrible and monstrous thing."
Go and read the entire essay for the best analysis of this issue that I've seen. It concludes:
By endorsing torture--on anyone, anywhere, for any reason--we help obliterate the very values we are trying to promote. You can see this contradiction in Krauthammer's own words: We are "morally compelled" to commit "a terrible and monstrous thing." We are obliged to destroy the village in order to save it. We have to extinguish the most basic principle that defines America in order to save America.

No, we don't. In order to retain fundamental American values, we have to banish from the United States the totalitarian impulse that is integral to every act of torture. We have to ensure that the virus of tyranny is never given an opening to infect the Constitution and replicate into something that corrupts as deeply as it wounds. We should mark the words of Ian Fishback, one of the heroes of this war: "Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession. I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is 'America.'" If we legalize torture, even under constrained conditions, we will have given up a large part of the idea that is America. We will have lost the war before we have given ourselves the chance to win it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Two to read

Say what you will about conservative intellectuals, at least many of them can write. And many of them are willing to take on Congress or the administration, especially when they abandon conservative principles. Andrew Sullivan, with his criticism of the torture policy is a case in point. Today's column, though, is by George Will in the Washington Post, attacking legislation aimed at subsidizing the purchase of digital televisions. To be fair, though, Will doesn't deserve too much credit; the targets are just too inviting and easy to hit.

Via Crooked Timber, I found this interview in the New Yorker with the author of an article on the evolution trial in Dover, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the article itself is not available online. This is, actually, my biggest gripe with the New Yorker: you can't access their content online. Of course, it is their content, and they have every right to keep the best stuff for their magazine instead of making it freely available on the Internet. Still, I live in an entitlement culture; the idea of paying to read a newspaper or magazine just seems wrong. I suppose I'll just have to subscribe, though, because I really want access to everything in the magazine; I've never read anything from the New Yorker that was less than good.