Saturday, May 25, 2013

Hezbollah Shows Its True Colors?

NYT: In his most direct embrace yet of a fight in Syria, Hassan Nasrallah ordered his followers to engage in an all-out battle to salvage the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. 
Okay, they are really just showing their well-known colors, particularly vividly. This should be a major PR blunder--defending a monstrous regime that has killed hundreds of thousands of its own people. They are defending the patently indefensible.

Friday, May 24, 2013

When It Comes to Dictionaries, I Am A Prescriptivist

A prescriptive dictionary ennobles--it instructs on the correct or preferred usage. This is in contrast to descriptive dictionaries, which merely document usage--no matter how ugly, sloppy or illogical. So a prescriptivist would say "I could care less" absolutely is not interchangeable with "I couldn't care less". A descriptivist would say that, even though the latter means almost the opposite of the former, since it is used to mean the same thing, then it does mean the same thing. A prescriptivist would say this is disgusting linguistic moral relativism, and should not be countenanced. Prescriptivists are like Apple under Steve Jobs--they have taste. Descriptivists are like Microsoft under Steve Ballmer--all they care about is going with the volume of users.

Sadly, the vast majority of dictionaries today are descriptivist. This includes the famous OED which, in the popular imagination, is the final arbiter of meaning for the English language. For prescripvists, it may be the dictionary of record, but certainly no arbiter. I am a life-long prescriptivist.

Not that I am completely without appreciation for descriptivist dictionaries. In fact I think Urban Dictionary is one of the finest of its type. But for professionally curated dictionaries, I will always lean prescriptivist.

I was quite amused by this article, which explains how courts of law are starting to refer to Urban Dictionary. But when I came to this quote, I laughed out loud:
Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary, points out, however, that popular does not mean accurate. “People may like a word because it was posted by their friend or because it was funny,” he said.
Oh, the irony of it! An editor of the OED pointing out that descriptive does not mean accurate. While I acknowledge the hypothetical point that Urban Dictionary may be on the under-curated side, and some entries may be outright bogus, this still has a very strong flavor of a professional in a discipline that has allowed its standards to be undermined by modernism suddenly lurching traditionalist, when challenged from below. A bit like the deconstructionist English professor who bemoans the fading influence of serious literature in popular culture.

Monday, May 06, 2013

NPR, I Love You. But do something about your wretched Android app.

I love NPR. I have spent a big chunk of my life, perhaps averaging 40 minutes a day, for more than 20 years, listening. I was a born news junkie, born into a news junkie family. Once I discovered NPR news in my late twenties (c. 1992), I couldn't listen to anything else. Both because NPR is that good, and because the alternatives are that bad. Other than the BBC, there is really no broadcast news worth listening to. For a serious person. NPR is the only game in town country.

Like many people, I did most of my listening during commute time. So for a brief period, when I first switched to telecommuting in 2010, my NPR listening declined dramatically. Then I discovered the Android NPR app. That, along with a super-comfortable bluetooth headset, led to sustained and improved NPR news consumption. When I do menial chores--clean kitchen, my laundry, tidying, shaving--and when I life weights, NPR news is my go-to genre. With the ability to skip the stories that don't interest me (maybe 25%), my devotion to NPR news is greater than ever.

So this is obviously a bit of a love letter. But I really do wish NPR would get its act together with its Android app. I have been using it for 3+ years, on 4 different Android phones, and it is BUGGY as all get-out! It is an amazing paradox--may favorite app is also my most hated app. The problems:
  1. Frequently locks up. Not a full-blown crash, just an inexplicable lock-up that may last 20 seconds, or 3 minutes, or forever. I frequently resort to task-killing the app, just to re-start it.
  2. When it isn't locking up, it even more frequently starts segments mid-way through the segment. I think this happens at least 25% of the time.
  3. Amazingly, the app is going backwards by losing features! Functionality that has disappeared:
  • Ability to share any given story in your playlist by long-pressing.
  • "Clear played segments" option
  • Ability to re-arrange sequence of stories
I am almost completely baffled by this state of affairs. I am an NPR contributor, of course, but I would happily contribute more or pay significant $ for an Android app that works. I grope for an explanation. This old NPR blog post indicates that the app was developed as a hobby. That might have been okay for first release in 2009, but something so important really deserves more attention.

The only other explanation I can think of is conspiratorial...NPR is owned by its member stations. From my perspective, the idea of a local NPR station in every district is very outmoded and inefficient. Like the U.S military or auto dealer networks, there are way more outlets than justified by modern conditions. In fact, I tried to find out if I could give directly to NPR, rather than through my local affiliate, and I couldn't find a way to do it. So part of me has to wonder if the app is being crippled, either deliberately or back-handedly, by affiliate pressure.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Disappointed in NPR for furthering the cult of Hunter Thompson

I really don't care for the cult of Hunter Thompson. In my view, he was a somewhat talented writer who quickly became a prisoner of his own persona. His drug-addicted life and sad end, at his own hand, seem like ample testimony to the emptiness of the gonzo way. So I was most disappointed today when NPR had a long, fawning story on his original Kentucky Derby "reporting".

Although it can be occasionally amusing to read some of his way-over-the-top prose, I associate Hunter Thompson with a couple of very negative things. One is a variation on the suffering artist myth, a pop-culture notion even more over-worked than the Thompson cult. In his case, the suffering was expressed not in terms of years of material sacrifice for his muse, but rather the fact that he lost his personhood, as he became a persona (a more highbrow version of Michael Jackson). Second is a relentlessly cynical and reductive view of life. Corrosive skepticism has its place, but completely undiluted it is a little too potent.