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December 05, 2002
Freedom of Proper Perspective

Oozing civil dispassion, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh makes an almost-convincing case for why law schools shouldn't protest the military's policy on gays by preventing it from recruiting their students.

In Volokh's opinion, while the military might be wrong to insist that gay people conceal their sexual identity, he thinks that that possible wrong is outweighed by all the good the military does:

"Let's assume the military's discriminatory practices are bad...All the rights we have, we have because members of the military have bled to protect them. That's pretty good...Perspective is what tells us that the good the military does vastly exceeds the badness of its discriminatory practices."

This perspective seems reasonable enough, but how far do you take it?

The Constitution was a pretty good user guide for a representative democracy, but it didn't give women the right to vote: what if suffragists had conceded that the Constitution was good enough as it was?

Woolworth lunch counters were a pretty good place to grab a mid-day sandwich, but black people weren't allowed to sit at them: what if civil rights protesters had conceded that Woolworth lunch counters were good enough as they were?

Of course, Volokh anticiptates such inconvenient thinking:

"When I've made this argument before, some people have responded 'Well, we wouldn't let a law firm interview if it discriminated against gays; why should we let the military do so?' Yup, that's right, the military, it's just another bigoted law firm. Jones & Smith, the U.S. Army, same difference. That's what the logic of antidiscrimination-above-all tells us."

Now, far be it from me to disagree with a law professor's tacit presumptions about how much good a law firm is actually capable of. But while I may share Volokh's cynicism regarding the ultimate impact lawyers have on the world, I can't quite concur with the conclusion that undergirds his argument. Why not? Because in order to have the power to do good, you must first simply have a lot of power, period. And to exempt institutions from criticism simply because they have lots of power is a fundamentally unAmerican way of thinking: however gracious it might be to give the military a pass on its "don't ask don't tell" policy, the patriot in me sides with the law schools, which, as far as I can see, are simply exercising their right to express their opinion about military policy via the form of a boycott.

In addition to decrying such boycotts on grounds of good manners, Volokh also questions their pragmatism:

If the military changes its policy, it won't be because they're having a slightly harder time recruiting lawyers; the boycott just can't make that sort of practical difference.

Of course, this issue is in the news in the first place because these boycotts apparently made some kind of difference to someone: in order to encourage schools like Harvard and Yale to allow even more military recruitment than they were currently permitting, the military made threats regarding the federal funding that those schools receive. (To receive federal funding, schools must allow military recruiting. Both Harvard and Yale were allowing it in one form or another, but not in a way that the military deemed pro-active enough.)

Now, it's possible that the military took such actions not because it was having a slightly harder time recruiting officers, but simply because its feelings were hurt. But how can Volokh know for sure? And how can he presume what the eventual impact of such boycotts might have been, had the military not acted to end them?

Still, let's say that Volokh is right. The military is so powerful that it's pure folly to entertain the notion that law schools (or anyone else) can even presume to make it change its ways: efforts to do so are as meaningless as Iraqis voting for someone other than Saddam.

As grim as that reality may be, it's not enough for Volokh, who argues that even the consolation of symbolic dissent is anathema to true democracy, if it means mildly critiquing the armed forces who risk their lives protecting our freedom to acquiesce to institutional prejudice:

But perspective reminds us that those institutions that defend our lives deserve slightly more accommodation - yes, even despite what we may see as their vices - than institutions that don't. And any morality and any symbolism that fails to keep this proper perspective is not a morality or symbolism to live by.

Ah, yes, isn't that, in the end, what this country was founded upon - the freedom of "proper perspective"? Fail to exercise it, Volokh implies, and you're morally, symbolically dead.

Posted by Greg Beato at 12:53 PM
December 03, 2002
Grabbing The Brass Ring Tone

It's nearly 2003, my cell phone has yet to buy me a drink, my refrigerator remains interactive on only the most myotoxic level, and whenever I try talking to my computer, it just sits there in a streamlined stupor, as silent and befuddled as Keanu Reeves without a script. Of course, even Keanu has sufficient voice-recognition capabilities to make keyboard input largely optional in most situations. But a computer without a keyboard? That's like a heavyweight boxer without arms.

Still, various visionaries are determined to teach computers to stand on their heads and punch with their feet. A few years ago at MIT, for example, the Spoken Language Systems group developed an airline reservation system called Mercury that allows you to call up a computer and, using "naturally spoken English," converse with it as if you were speaking to a real person (or at least a real airline clerk). In other words, the Spoken Language Systems group doesn't just want to make every computer as inefficient as voicemail. It wants to make every computer as inefficient as an actual person.

It's possible I've misinterpreted the group's objectives, of course, but consider the comments of the group's leader, Victor Zue. "Speech is the simplest and fastest form of human communication there is," he told Discover magazine in December 2000. "If we could talk to computers, then virtually anyone could use them, without any training at all."

Speech is the fastest form of communication there is? Well, sure, with a few notable exceptions, most people can talk faster than they can type. But what about when you're on the listening side of the equation? The average talking speed is around 125 words per minute, and if you can't read at least twice as many words as that per minute (a rate that even the average stoned college student exceeds), well, it's not as if a talking computer is likely to turn your life around too much.

Don't get me wrong, though. If Zue or anyone else can convince the masses to abandon their keyboards, I'm all for it.

Now, I understand a world without keyboards will be a little awkward at first. Imagine having to announce to your computer, and thereby to your cubicle mates as well, that instead of working on the new marketing budget, what you'd really like to do is buy a bunch of erotic farting videos.

Even official office discourse (making fun of your boss via IM, applying for better jobs, etc.) becomes problematic when you have to vocalize it all: even Zue explains that "dictating to a computer is a private thing."

But private or not, I say that keyboards have gotta go: remember how much better things were back in the days of the Altair?

Typewriters, teletypes, and other keyboard devices existed before the dawn of the PC, of course, but how many people actually used them on a regular basis? Mostly just secretaries, clerks, writers, and college students...

But the Altair led to the Apple I, and the Apple I ultimately led to the personal computer as interactive entertainment device with far too much capacity for content production, content navigation, and content distribution.

And unless someone can figure out a way to make content harder to produce and harder to access, anyone who believes profits (or at least revenues) should be a factor in content production and distribution will experience endless frustration.

But imagine using the Internet without a keyboard. If you know where you're headed, nothing changes: you just use bookmarks or your mouse to click on links. But searching becomes tedious: every time you use Google you have to have a conversation. Blogging becomes laborious - I can type much faster than I can think. And chat? How long will the genre last if you actually have to say "laughing my ass off" each time you need to send a non-response to someone you're only half-communicating with because you have five other conversations going at the same time?

Without keyboards, computers become much more like the transaction-enabled TVs that Big Media soothsayers always hoped they'd be. Thus, the great necessity for voice-recognition systems, and the much-anticipated evolution of the desktop computer and its keyboard into smaller devices like portable advertising delivery units, aka cell phones .

Cell phones offer the best chance to restore the old order of things, because cell phones provide just enough interactivity to complete transactions, but not enough to transform consumers of content into producers of content. Of course, some people insist on using cell phones to communicate with each other instead of merely downloading ring tones and screen savers, but that's where wireless messaging comes into play: anything to augment flat subscription fees isn't all bad.

And from a user's perspective, well, how many of them really want the burden of interactivity anyway? After all, part of the reason the Web grew so slowly was that people felt that getting an Internet account meant that they had to create their own home page, and only a few bored introverts were interested in that. It wasn't until the advent of e-commerce and professional media sites that the Web became mainstream. Replace our keyboards with cell phones that double as press releases, and this thing might finally turn into a real money-maker.

Posted by Greg Beato at 11:06 PM
December 02, 2002
Professors Against Grandmothers

There's a piece in the Washington Post today that has Comrade Reynolds particularly up in arms and no wonder. It's about saggy septugenarian peaceniks opposing the war, and you know how the Comrade likes his wimmin: young, perky, and bellicose...

In a follow-up post, the Comrade says the "menopausal moms" are representative of "the general Boomer-nostalgia tenor of the antiwar movement," but I think his math's a little off: the youngest member of the "Mothers Against War" group that the Post piece profiles is 59, which means that even she's too old to qualify as a Boomer, given that Boomers are usually defined as that generation which was born between 1946 and 1964. And at least one of these pacificist ladies is 77, which I think makes her part of the Greatest Generation, doesn't it?

In any case, Comrade Reynolds dismisses the Post piece as "unsupported hype," and in an effort to provide some ideological underwiring to the chicks-dig-war counterargument, he points to this apparent advertorial in the Christian Science Monitor.

"Unlike Nieves' piece -- which basically quotes antiwar activists saying how successful they are -- this piece has actual data," the Comrade exclaims. (Italics his.)

Well, it has a reference to a CNN poll that apparently showed that "58 percent of women "support President Bush on sending ground troops to Iraq." I say "apparently" because the only article about the poll I can find on doesn't break down the results by gender - it just reports that out of the 803 adults polled, 57% of them said they favored sending ground troops to Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power.

But I trust that the Christian Sciene Monitor article's author, Kellyanne Conway, has the inside dope on the poll's gender specifics, because in addition to being a prolific conservative opinion dispenser, Conway is also a polling industry insider who owns a polling company...whose data she also includes in her article.

Thus, while the Post piece may be built upon "antiwar activists saying how successful they are," the Christian Science Monitor piece is built upon an enterprising business owner blatantly shilling her services. And also, of course, on the opinions of the 803 Americans who completed the CNN poll.

Or more specifically, on the opinions of however many women out of the 803 Americans polled said they favored sending ground troops to Iraq. (Note: if the poll queried an equal number of men and women, then approximately 233 women said they favored sending ground troops to Iraq.)

Of course, the opinions of these women, who in an act of great patriotism put aside whatever they were doing for five minutes to complete the CNN poll, are, in the words of Reynolds, "actual data."

And the opinions of the 50 core members of the Mothers Against War group, and the opinions of its "thousands of supporters" and 70 other "peace groups" that the Post piece mentions? Reynolds dismisses that as "unsupported hype."

To me, neither group of opinions seems particularly definitive - but I'm glad to read about both. Why disdain the opinions and efforts of a bunch of old women, simply because they're old?

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:45 AM
December 01, 2002
Future's Future Looking Good

What will life be like in 2012? With the help of futurists Paul Saffo, Tim Bajarin, and Tim Brown, SJ Mercury columnist Mike Langberg ponders the evitable. One sure thing Langberg fails to predict: the seemingly indestructible Saffo will still be around then too, telling columnists what to expect in 2022.

As for Langberg's actual predictions, well, it's a future that John Ashcroft and marketing executives will certainly love:

You'll no longer be surprised to get a call from the repair center at Sears or Maytag saying your washing machine is using too much hot water and needs adjustment...

Family, friends and co-workers will be able to instantly see where you are, thanks to wireless phones even tinier than what's available today and other devices with built-in GPS locators.

Stores without doors will rely on RFID, or radio-frequency identification, tags to keep track of inventory and payment.

Every cable and satellite television receiver will include a hard disk for recording shows, and those disks will have a minimum capacity of one terabyte, or 1,000 gigabytes, enough to store hundreds of hours of high-definition programming.

Posted by Greg Beato at 08:47 PM