Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

The Elements of Journalism—Friday, December 5th, 2014

I wrote a little about The Elements of Journalism, when I hit the section praising David Protess for tricking Alstory Simon into confessing to murder. The thing about that is, it isn’t just that the authors praised Process, and that this praise became embarrassing a few years later, that made this example stand out. It was that Protess explicitly broke some of the rules outlined in this book. This should have been a red flag signaling that maybe they should dig deeper before using the Simon case as an exemplar. But it didn’t, because the rules of journalism aren’t prescriptions, they’re rationalizations. That is, they aren’t scientific rules to guide journalists moving forward, they’re religious rationalizations used to justify what they want to do. They’re used to justify a belief rather than find the truth.

The major problem with this book is that it does little, if anything, to change that. To the extent that it provides justifications that may be chosen from ad hoc, it makes things worse.

When the author started talking about using the scientific method as a guide to better journalism, I thought, maybe he’s onto something. But the bedrock foundation of the scientific method is that you must do your best to explain how your findings can be proved wrong. You must show how to falsify your results.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.—Richard Feynman (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)

Eucalyptus development ends, removed from app store—Sunday, November 30th, 2014
Jurgen on the iPhone

Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice on Apple’s iBooks.

Jamie Montgomerie of Things Made Out of Other Things has removed Eucalyptus from the app store. Development obviously stopped quite a while ago: Eucalyptus was never updated for the iPad, which meant that not only did it not use the larger screen size effectively but it also never synchronized downloaded books and current locations between iPhone and iPad.

I enjoyed Eucalyptus enough that even without those features I continued using it for Gutenberg books, reserving iBooks for PDFs (mostly manuals) and non-Gutenberg ePubs. Thus reading Gutenberg books on the iPhone only.

While I could technically continue to do this, his comment in the announcement that “I’ll keep the servers going until I can’t.” just tipped me over the edge to switch all of my reading to iBooks. It is nice to be able to use the iPad at home and then seamlessly switch to reading on the iPhone when I have a few extra minutes on the go.

It is easy enough to get books from Project Gutenberg onto an iPad or iPhone. You can go to almost any book on Gutenberg and download the ePub. On your Mac, just drag the downloaded file to iBooks. On the iPad or iPhone, you can choose to “Open in iBooks” after choosing an ePub link.

The one tricky part is that, if you are only syncing “Selected books” in iTunes, iBooks does not assume that if you downloaded a book on a mobile device you want it kept there. The book will sync over to iTunes for synchronizing to other devices, but it won’t be checked. It will, thus, be deleted from the original device. Nor does iBooks yet synchronize non-Apple Store books via iCloud; it will synchronize your current location in those books, however, the book needs to be transferred to each other device through iTunes.

Letters to a Young Journalist—Monday, October 27th, 2014

He starts his memoirish collection of advice where one should start, the beginning, with plucky young reporters, wise old sages, and the inevitably burned-out hacks.

The reporters whom I got to know over the coming weeks seemed drawn in equal parts from the past and the future. There was an old-timer named Forrest who liked to avoid being assigned obituaries by hiding under his desk. One of his contemporaries, Maggie, sometimes fell asleep at her desk, letting her wig slide off. Phil, one of the editors, chewed cigars.1 I couldn’t dismiss the whole generation, though, because it also included Jack Gill, the streetwise skeptic who covered Plainfield, and Hollis Burke, an idealist who had done a midlife turn in the Peace Corps. They had about them not only experience but wisdom.

The youngsters in the newsroom came from hip backgrounds, including disc jockeys and poets.

Sam Meddis, one of the investigative reporters, had talked his way into the paper with a bunch of poems he’d written as a Rutgers undergrad.

Freedman himself always prefers the path less traveled. If someone else is covering the same story, it’s already passé.

If you give me a choice, I will always prefer to write about someone obscure than someone famous. And, as much as I savor the company of fellow journalists at a party or in a newsroom, I feel like I’ve done something wrong if I bump into any of them reporting the same story as I am.

Ah, but journalism has gone to hell since the days before cable television, when television news was a single voice with three heads and the news media in general spoke in unison.

My own bitter joke is that I remember when the New York Post published nonfiction. By that I mean that I remember it before it was bought by Rupert Murdoch. I’m not generally a believer in the Great Man Theory of History, but in Murdoch’s case, his despotic genius has been to infect contemporary American journalism with some of its most pernicious diseases. He transformed the Post from a spunky and serious paper to a gossip-and-sensationalism rag, created the tawdry genre of tabloid television with the show A Current Affair, and bankrolled Fox News Channel, a political movement masquerading as a news organization. No individual bears more responsibility for degrading the profession I practice and adore, and I would feel no differently if Murdoch had been a demagogue of the Left rather than the Right.

Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting—Friday, October 24th, 2014

Unlike the next book I’m going to review, Inside the Beltway is a nuts-and-bolts guide to committing journalism—print journalism—in Washington, DC. Don Campbell covers the various basic kinds of beltway reporting and follows each section with a list of resources.

The number one concern of the new beltway journalist is making contacts. Campbell describes DC as “a company town”, but it’s a company with constantly shifting lines of authority. It is very important to build contacts before the contacts are needed: once they’re needed, everybody wants to talk to them.

The reporters who get their phone calls returned in even-numbered years are the ones who phone you and have lunch with you in the odd-numbered years.

By the time the primaries and caucuses begin in February, much of the fun of covering a presidential campaign is over for print journalists. With the arrival of television crews, campaigns become a blur of photo opportunities and inane press conferences, a battle of TV ads and expectations, upon all of which the voters have the audacity to intrude briefly every week or so.

Campbell gives equal treatment to records searches and archival research as he does to making contacts and knowing people, but,

…Washington is a town of networks within networks within networks, as noted by the Wall Street Journal’s crack investigator Edward Pound: “People are more important here because connections—who you know, whether you know the right lawyers in town, the right investigators—that’s more important in Washington than records.”

Washington is a town of egos, and most people’s egos exceed their grasp. This is true both of reporters and of candidates. “The best political reporters are people who like politicians,” but when reporters are assigned to a candidate, it naturally gives them a vested interest in that candidate. Not only do they tend to start to like the candidate, but the candidate’s success is their own success.

The Vintage Mencken—Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

In The Vintage Mencken, Alistair Cooke gathered “mainly to introduce to a generation that never read him a writer who more and more strikes me as the master craftsman of daily journalism in the twentieth century.” On the other hand, this could well be an “I compiled this not to praise Mencken but to bury him” sort of deal, only this time honestly. “Mencken’s thunder,” after all, “issued from an unmaterial mind, but also from a full stomach.”

This collection stresses “the newspaper pieces that had outlived more pretentious stuff”, and I’m not sure but I think Cooke means Mencken’s more pretentious stuff. For Mencken “was overrated in his day as a thinker” but “underrated as a humorist”.

Here are a few of the quotes I’ve added to my quotes database from The Vintage Mencken:

If I had my way no man guilty of golf would be eligible to any office of trust or profit under the United States…

In the whole realm of human learning there is no faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy.

The great combat is ending this afternoon in the classical Democratic manner. That is to say, the victors are full of uneasiness and the vanquished are full of bile.

If revenge is really sweet he was sucking a colossal sugar teat, but all the same there was a beery flavor about it that must have disquieted him.

He sailed through American history like a steel ship loaded with monoliths of granite.

We suffer most, not when the White House is a peaceful dormitory, but when it is a jitney Mars Hill, with a tin-pot Paul bawling from the roof.

Frankness and courage are luxuries confined to the more comic varieties of runners-up at national conventions.

An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Many of these are out of context; Mencken is at his best when taken out of context. Cooke recognizes this, and many of the articles are abridged. Reading this, I can’t but get the feeling that Cooke’s ambivalence about Mencken carried over into his choices; Mencken is a legend, but these articles seem to qualify Mencken for the Order of Cantankerous Emilies, Litella Class. The strangest is a nearly incomprehensible diatribe sarcastically proposing civilian awards for overzealousness (honest and cynical) in wartime, riffing off of the proliferation of fraternal orders at the time, the Elks and such. It almost makes more sense as if Mencken were making fun of opinion pieces rather than any topic therein. The ideas are only thinly connected and Mencken has, at least, a better reputation than not to realize that in satire and sarcasm the links must be strong to hold.

Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father—Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

David Goldhill begins Catastrophic Care by saying “I’m a Democrat and once held views about health care common in my party.” He isn’t lying: he is far to the left in his worldview: businessmen are evil and exist to screw the average person. But he is also a businessman, so he recognizes that even the evil businessmen have an incentive to not screw the average person, and that these incentives don’t exist in the health care industry:

Every business would like to get away with high prices, poor quality, and miserable service, but this behavior carries an unacceptable cost: lost customers, lost revenue, lost profits. In health care, bad behavior doesn’t produce these bad results; bad behavior is often rewarded with additional revenue, and efficiency is penalized with less.

As a leftist, he idolizes health care businessmen above other businessmen; as a businessman, he recognizes that they respond to the same incentives other businessmen do.

All of the actors in health care want to serve patients well, but understandably most respond rationally to the backward economic incentives baked into the system.

In fact, quite a few businessmen started their business to provide a service, and many, despite all of the regulatory incentives to not do so well, still strive to provide good service.

His dual, almost dissociative, worldview causes him to make extraordinarily conflicting sentences:

In a system burdened by complexity, bureaucratic explosion, and lack of innovation, the ACA paves the way for even more rules, many of which are merely mandates for future rules and ever more committees and commissions. The problem with the ACA isn’t that it represents “government takeover of health care” or “socialism” or even the famous but nonexistent “death panels.” The problem with the ACA is that it’s so old-fashioned.

The problem with the ACA, in other words, is not that it’s old-fashioned. It’s that it’s old-fashioned. Top-down, government controlled, filled with committees and commissions to determine what life-saving care will be allowed, that’s what old-fashioned means. But as a leftist, he can’t quite get to admitting that socialism is an old-fashioned solution.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business—Sunday, August 3rd, 2014
Amusing Ourselves to Death Television cover

Television, according to Postman, is emblematic of all electronic media.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is extraordinarily sloppy. On the very first page, he writes about a statue of a hog butcher that may or may not exist in Chicago. That may have been poorly-worded sarcasm, but on the next page he speculates that because President Richard Nixon—after resigning—advised Senator Ted Kennedy to lose twenty pounds if he wants to run for president,

…it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office. Probably bald people as well. Almost certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhanced by the cosmetician’s art. Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

Now, the conclusion may be true. But it is worded in such a passive-aggressive manner as to be near-useless. The evidence given—a disgraced politician’s dieting advice to a man whose biggest impediment to national office was not weight issues but leaving a woman to drown slowly overnight—simply doesn’t make any sense except as sarcasm. And not only was Kennedy’s weight not the biggest roadblock keeping him from the Oval Office, but the leap from Nixon’s advice on weight to baldness is done without any proffered evidence. And yet, this is not sarcasm: this is the thesis of the book, that appearance has become more important than substance.

He speaks a lot about Aldous Huxley in this book, contrasting Huxley’s vision of the future with George Orwell’s. But even that is impossibly vague, starting right in the first chapter when he writes that “We are all, as Huxley says someplace, Great Abbreviators…”.

He describes his purpose at the start of chapter two:

It is my intention in this book to show that a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense. With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism—Monday, July 21st, 2014
Chicago press, 1924

“Press group waits in Criminal Courts Building Memorial Day night, 1924, for expected confession of Nathan F. Leopold and Richard Loeb.” Author John J. McPhaul is person number 3.

Deadlines & Monkeyshines is a glimpse into an ancient world of titans: a world where, rather than one newspaper, or two cooperating newspapers, a city might have four or even five newspapers all competing for as much readership as they could steal from their rivals—or make without their rivals picking up on it until after press time.

John J. McPhaul came up in the tail end of that era, and his anecdotes are about Chicago, but I expect that the same kinds of stories could be found in any frontier-born city. At the time McPhaul wrote Deadlines & Monkeyshines, there were only two newspaper publishers, and only four papers, with each publisher putting out a morning and afternoon edition. But the world he tells about is a world where newspapers could start overnight on the shoestring of a whim and end just as quickly.

Many of the problems we complain about today existed then—they were just only told about in the backrooms and over card tables on the dog watch. McPhaul describes such a late-night card game on page one, consisting of two to three reporters, a sergeant or lieutenant, and possibly a bookmaker or bondsman.

They, as today, thrived on violence. During the 1894 Pullman Company strike, newsmen wrote the following irreverent ditty:

    • War correspondents bold are we
    • And our trade is grim and grey.
    • Peace and quiet suit us not—
    • We want war and we want it hot!

McPhaul also reproduces the Wilbur Storey quote above, but in the context of being a Democrat who

…was no admirer of President Lincoln or the Republican party. He seemed principally interested in the war as a means of selling papers. His standing order to his reporters with the troops was “Telegraph fully all news and when there is no news send rumors.” News and rumors alike were published under exclamatory headlines.

Even modern gremlins such as the sock puppet were exercised by early reporters, in the form of journalists writing letters to the editor under pseudonyms.

Even back then government officials knew how to trade access for good publicity.

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