November 2010

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woman, dog, car

The Kid has been scanning archival family photos and I’ve been uploading them to Flickr (where I have now passed 39,000 shots in that one site alone). Many of these photos are well over a hundred years old. Most are about eighty years old, give or take a decade or two. They’re from the collection of Grace Apgar, my father’s sister, who is now 98 and doing fine. She’s been putting corrections and contexts into the comments. (There is a lot of longevity here. Grace’s mom, my grandmother, lived almost to 108.)

The shot above has me intrigued, because I’m curious to know what kind of car that is. Here’s another shot, of my father and a buddy, with a different car. That shot has a date, but the car’s identity isn’t clear to me yet. There are more car shots here and here.

So, just some fun stuff on a weekend, identifying old things.

Lately, thanks to the inexcusably inept firing of Juan Williams by NPR brass, and the acceptance of a $1.8 million grant from George Soros, NPR has tarred its credentials as a genuinely fair and balanced news organization. Which it mostly still is, by the way, no matter how much the right tries to trash it. (And mostly succeeds, since trying to stay in the middle has itself become a lefty thing to do.)

Columnists all over the place are calling for the feds “pull the plug on funding for Natonal Public Radio”. (That’s from No subsidy for NPR, by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. An aside: NPR’s name is now just NPR. Just like BP is no longer British Petroleum.) In fact NPR gets no money from the feds directly. What NPR does is produce programs that it wholesales to stations, which retail to listeners and sponsors. According to NPR’s finances page, about 10% of that sponsorship comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Another 6% comes from “federal, state and local government”.

Jeff points to a NY Times piece, Move to Cut NPR Funding is Defeated in the House, which says “Republicans in the House tried to advance the defunding measure as part of their ‘YouCut‘ initiative, which allows the public to vote on which spending cuts the G.O.P. should pursue.’ The You Cut page doesn’t mention public radio. It does have this:

Terminate Broadcasting Facility Grant Programs that Have Completed their Mission.

Potential Savings of $25 million in the first year, $250 million over ten years.

In his most recent budget, President Obama proposed terminating the Public Broadcasting Grants at the Department of Agriculture and Public Telecommunications Facilities Grants at the Department of Commerce. The President’s Budget justified terminating these programs, noting that: “Since 2004, the USDA Public Broadcasting Grants program has provided grants to support rural public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. Digital conversion efforts mandated by the Federal Communications Commission are now largely complete, and there is no further need for this program.” and “Since 2000, most PTFP awards have supported public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. The digital television transition was completed in 2009, and there is no further need for DOC’s program.”

CPB isn’t in there. And they’re right: the digital conversion is done. So maybe one of ya’ll can help us find exactly what the congressional Republicans are proposing here.

Here’s a back-and-forth between Anna Christopher of NPR and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard. Says Anna,

NPR receives less than 2% of its funding from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations (such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts).

Replies Michael,

I appreciate the smug, condescending tone of this letter, but I’m unconvinced. As one former CPB official I spoke to explained, “they love to claim they’re insulated, but they’re very much dependent on the public tit.” The other 98 percent of NPR’s funding comes from a mix of donations, corporate support, and dues from member stations. The fees and dues paid by member stations comprise more than half of NPR’s budget. Where does that money come from? In large part, from the federal government.

Take the local NPR affiliate in Washington, WAMU 88.5. That station paid NPR in excess of $1.5 million in dues, the station’s largest single expense outside of fundraising and personnel. The station also took in $840,000 in public funding and grants from the CPB. The station spent nearly $4 million on “fund-raising and membership development,” with a return of just $6 million. Fundraising is expensive — public money isn’t.

I looked at the .pdf at that link and don’t see the same numbers, but it’s clear enough that NPR affiliates pay a lot for NPR programming, and a non-trivial hunk of that money comes from CPB. According to this CPB document, its regular approriation for fiscal year 2010 is $420 million, and it’s looking for $430 million in 2011, $445 million for 2012 and $604 million for 2013. Bad timing.

Still, here’s the really interesting thing that almost nobody is talking about. Public radio kicks ass in the ratings. It’s quite popular. In fact, I would bet that it’s far more popular, overall, than right wing talk radio.

In Raleigh-Durham, WUNC is #2, with an 8.2 share. That’s up from 7.5 in the prior survey. Radio people can tell ya, that number is huge.

In San Francisco, KQED is #4 with a 5.2 share.

In New York, WNYC-FM is down in the teens with a 2.2 share, but nobody has more than a 6.5. Add WNYC-AM’s .8 share and classical sister WQXR’s 1.8 share, and you get a 4.8, which is #3 overall.

Here is Boston, WBUR has a 3.3 share. WGBH has a 1.1. Its classical sister station, WCRB (which now avoids using call letters) has a 2.7. Together those are 6.1, or #3 overall.

In Washington, WAMU gets a 4.8, , and stands at #5. Classical WETA has a 4.4, for #6. Add in Pacifica’s jazz station, WPFW, with .8, and you get 10, which would be #1 if they were counted together.

There are places where public radio, relatively speaking, sucks wind. Los Angeles is one. The public stations there are good but small. (The Pacifica station is technically the biggest in the country, but its appeal is very narrow.) Dallas is another. But on the whole, NPR stations do very well.

But do they do well enough to stand on their own? I think so. In fact, I think they should. That’s one reason we created ListenLog, which I visited at length here last July. ListenLog is an app that currently works with the Public Radio Player from PRX.  The idea is to show you what you listen to, and how much you value it. Armed with informative self-knowledge, you should be more inclined to pay than just to cruise for free.

We’re entering an era when more and more of our choices are both a la carte and our own. Meaning we’re more responsible, on the whole. And so are our suppliers. There will be more connections between those two facts, and we’ll be in a position to make those connections — as active customers, and not just as passive consumers.

So, if you want public radio to do a better job, to be more accountable to its listeners and not just to the government (even if indirectly), pony up. Make it yours. And let’s keep building better tools to help with that.

[Later...] Here’s a bonus link from Bob Garfield’s AdAge column. (He’s also a host of NPR’s On the Media.) And a quote:

The only quality journalism available, at least in this country, is from a few dozen newspapers and magazines, NPR, some alt weeklies, a few websites  Slate.com, for instance) and a few magazine/website hybrids such as Atlantic. On TV, there is “The News Hour” and “Frontline” on PBS and that is it. Cable “news” is a wasteland (watch for a while and let me know when you see a reporter, you know, reporting). Network news, having taught cable how to cut costs and whore itself to ratings, isn’t much better. Local TV news is live remotes from crime scenes and “Is Your Microwave Killing Your Hamster?”

Good stuff. Read the whole thing.

Balk Friday

Yesterday’s paper came late. Guess it was too heavy. The thing weighed about four pounds, most of which was advertising for sales today, Black Friday, the first day of the Christmas Shopping season. Buy Now and Save! Celebrate the birth of the Savior by spending big, in herds.

We were at a house with TV for Thanksgiving yesterday. There on the flat screen I saw news coverage of people huddled on sidewalks, awaiting rain overnight and store openings in the morning. I guess those people are grazing on savings in those very stores right now.

One sane alternative is to join in celebration of Buy Nothing Day. It’s today in the U.S. and tomorrow elsewhere. BND is part of AdbustersCarnivalesque Rebellion, the idea behind which is to “shut down consumer capitalism for a week”. Today is the culmination of that.

About Adbusters: “We are a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” My work kinda fits that description, but my means toward the same ends are different. Adbusters is at war with captialism, and I’m not. I just think that the demand side of the market has never been properly equipped — and that once it is, we won’t need the war, because the system will reform itself. We’ll discover that it’s possible to prosper and improve our lives and the world by actually relating, rather than by controlling from one side or rebelling from the other.

But, each to their own. I’m glad Adbusters is out there and has a sense of humor about what they’re doing. And hey, think about how much you’re actually saving by spending nothing today.

Two new and worthy posts over at the ProjectVRM blog: Awake at the Wheels and VRM as Agency. Featured are and .

If you can park your politics (whatever it might be) long enough to listen with an open mind to a one-hour podcast, please dig Reading Obama’s Mind: Pragmatism and Its Perils, an interview by Chris Lydon of James T. Kloppenberg, chair of the Department of History at Harvard, author of “A Nation Arguing with Its Conscience” in Harvard Magazine, and a forthcoming biography, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition.

Chris is one of the first (and best) podcasters, as well as a notable on many other grounds. (Bonus link.) He blogs and ‘casts at Radio Open Source. Subscribe here.

I’m looking for two things here.

First is the percentage of advertising devoted to “branding.” I’ve read 90% somewhere, but I need more than hearsay or partial recall. In fact, I’m in the market for any hard numbers on the subject of advertising. This is for a book I’m writing, and my sources need to be worthy of bibliographic citation.

Second is the truth behind a story I have heard more than once regarding James Buchanan Duke, a baron of the tobacco industry. According to the story, Duke was asked at a board meeting why he advertised his cigarette brands so annoyingly. In reply, Duke spit on the table and said, “You may not like that, but you’ll never forget it.” I suspect this is apocryphal, but I don’t know. So I’m hoping one of you can point me to an authoritative source on the matter.

Smart people SLEEP LATE yells the headline of this opinion piece in the Winnipeg Free Press. It begins,

Sleep is a fundamental component of animal biology. New evidence confirms that, in humans, its timing reflects intelligence. People with higher IQs (intelligence quotients) tend to be more active nocturnally, going to bed later, whereas those with lower IQs usually retire to bed sooner after nightfall.

Let’s stop right there and ask a few questions:

  • Does each of us actually have a “quotient” — a sum — of intelligence?
  • Is intelligence actually measurable as a sum?
  • Do you believe you have an IQ? Do you know what it is?
  • Would you be willing to share your IQ scores? Why? Or why not?

I took many IQ tests during my years in school. And since my mother taught in the public school I attended through the 9th grade, she had access to all my records. Between those and others I’ve seen, my known IQ scores have an eighty point range: from quite smart to quite dumb. Those scores are among the many facts that convinced me long ago that IQ testing is meant mostly for one thing: ranking people. It’s made to privilege some, to keep privileges from others, and to move the rest as a herd through school or some other system. It legitimizes the arbitrary sorting of human beings into castes based on poor measures of one quality that makes each of us very human, and therefore also very different from every other human being. In a cruel way, it seeks to measure the immeasurable, and to sort us out accordingly.

IQ testing became popular in an age when eugenics was still taken seriously: when it was assumed by privileged populations that races and ethnic groups differed by intelligence and other measures. Today we go out of our way to avoid that kind of thinking, at the official level. But the proclivity persists. Assuming that people have an IQ — intelligence measured as if by a thermometer — is still more than common, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. That’s what we see in reports like the quoted one above.

So here’s my advice to anybody writing about the topic: recognize that IQ is a one-time score on a test, not a true measure of the very human and highly arcane personal quality we call intelligence. Don’t say “Those with higher IQs.” Say “Those with higher IQ scores.” The difference is between humanity and that which seeks to replace it with a number. It should help to think about the harms caused by the latter.

My great uncle Jack Dwyer worked in the shipping and steamship business through the first half of the last century. He also took a lot of pictures, including my favorite family photo of all time. (I’m the kid with the beer.) I was going through a bunch of these on Flickr yesterday, when I noticed the name of a ship launched in Biloxi, in 1919. It was the Elizabeth Ruth. Look closely and you can see the ship is wooden. In fact it was one of the last of the masted schooners on which Biloxi specialized.

Thanks to Google Books and the Library of the University of Michigan, we have an account of the Elizabeth Ruth’s launch, in March 1917, in Volume 35 of The Rudder, edited by Thomas Fleming Day (in a day when using full names was still as current as sails on ships). Writes Day, “The Mississippi Shipping Corporation, at Biloxi, put out Elizabeth Ruth, of the Schooner type, one of the prettiest little vessels ever built in the United States, of 1400 tons cargo capacity.”

So I wondered whatever happened to the Elizabeth Ruth. And I quickly found out. From Papers Past, we have this account:

Sez the About page:

Papers Past contains more than one million pages of digitised New Zealand newspapers and periodicals. The collection covers the years 1839 to 1945 and includes 61 publications from all regions of New Zealand.

New Zealand. I just love that. Here I am, wanting to know what may have happened to a minor ship, built and launched from a minor port on one continent ninety-two years ago — that I have just learned about from a book scanned in Michigan and probably not cracked open in the library stacks there except to get scanned — and I get the answer from a scanned strip of equally old print, kindly curated by  archivists half a world away.

That just rocks. Hats off to librarians, archivists and their technical facilitators everywhere, doing the good work of opening up history and letting the world have at it.

Bonus link. Another.

I lost my Sprint data thing and my smartphone is getting dumber by the second. (In fact, I’m on my way to trade it in.) So the only way I can get online from the road right now is by stopping at a Panera Bread, which has slow but free wi-fi. The kid is with me and just bought a roll for us to share while I let ya’ll know that I’ll be on Tummelvision live at 8pm tonight Eastern, 5pm Pacific, 0100 Greenwich.

If you’re not hip to Tummeling, find out more here. Tummelvision is the brainthing of Heather Gold, Deb Schultz and Kevin Marks, three excellent folks I’ve known for years. In the last few of those, Kevin and Deb have both been involved with ProjectVRM and its immodest ambitions as well.

Should be a fun conversation. Hear you there.

For whatever reasons, network neutrality has become more of a political football than a technical principle. Lately, however, its advocates have come up with some original new approaches that may de-politicize the matter to some degree, and cause progress (or at least conversation) to occur.

One is John Palfrey’s Citizen’s Choice Framework for Net Neutrality. The key paragraphs:

In this memo, I propose that the FCC should pursue a compromise solution on Net Neutrality that both preserves the open Internet and permits opportunity for reasonable product differentiation and network management on IP networks.

The central tenet of this plan would be to locate the choice to differentiate services with the consumer, not with the Internet Service Provider. The overriding policy goal is to create incentives for increasing bandwidth infrastructure rather than monetizing or encouraging scarcity. And the plan should prioritize Managed Services that support national purposes as set forth in the National Broadband Plan.

Another is On Advancing the Open Internet by Distinguishing it from Specialized Services. Telephony and television are two of those specialized services. Distinguishing those from the open Internet, where (as Barbara van Schewick talked about yesterday) most of the innovation takes place, is critical. Especially since the open Internet today arrives at most of our doors as a secondary or tertiary service in the “triple play” offerings of telephone and television companies.

I think most of us in the U.S. have never experienced truly neutral Internet service from a phone or cable company, and that’s been one of the problems from the start. But we have experienced openness, and even the least technical among us know the difference between what we can do on the Net and what we can do with a phone (even “smart” ones — all of which are still crippled to some degree by phone companies) or a TV set top box. That’s why net neutrality still resonates as a label with users. They want it, even if they can’t define it, and even if no law is passed protecting it. The “it” is openness and support for anything that wants to use the Net. Not bias of the Net’s physical and logical infrastructure for specialized purposes.

The biggest of these will be television, most of which has already moved off the air and the rest of which will eventually move off of cable as well. TV is the elephant about to be digested in the Internet’s snake of time. We want the snake to survive the meal, not to become the meal. To prevent the latter from happening, we need new ideas, new proposals, new businesses, new understandings and undertakings by entities both public and private. These two proposals are both good efforts of that kind.

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