Friday, February 09, 2007

The long tail and the Madison Public Library

Interesting post by Sarah in the Madison Public Library's MADreads blog -- "Is small the new big?" She's writing about books relating to the trendy new "long tail" theory of niche marketing.
I’ve been reading a lot of books like Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More and Seth Godin’s Small Is the New Big: 183 Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas. The ideas behind these books are simple, and seem logical to me: there is more stuff available to look at and buy than we can currently find, and niche businesses are the businesses of the future.
In many ways, libraries have long been the very model of a successful long tail business, the very opposite of a mass marketer. Library stacks are filled with countless individual volumes that are only checked out once every few years, but remain there for the library patrons who need them. Tom Storey writes in the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) Newsletter about the libraries and the long tail.
Network television audience share has fallen 33 percent over the last 20 years, according to Nielsen Media Research. Radio listenership is at a 27-year low based on data from Duncan’s American Radio. Newspaper circulation, which peaked in 1987, continues to tumble, dropping 2 percent over the last six months, the Audit Bureau of Circulations says. Total magazine circulation has dropped to 1994 levels. And music CD sales are down 21 percent from their high in 1999.

These numbers suggest a profound transformation is taking place in the way people research, learn, entertain themselves and find things out in a networked environment. Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine, noted many of these trends in his seminal article, “The Long Tail,” which has struck a chord in technology and media circles. The Long Tail is Anderson’s business model for the digital age. It argues that the Web has started a complete revolution in the movie, book and music businesses.

Basically, The Long Tail says that big changes are in store—in fact, already taking place—as a new digital media and entertainment economy emerges. Digitization and e-delivery are radically changing economic fundamentals and creating new markets for millions of niche items. No longer are megahits, blockbusters and best-sellers designed for mass audiences the Holy Grail to success and riches. The digital environment, with its low storage and distribution costs, offers a viable alternative: aggregate the obscure and unpopular with the popular and widely celebrated using an automated recommendation system to link the two.

[...]

If Anderson’s theory is correct, and all media are in the throes of radical change, libraries may be well-positioned for this new era. The Long Tail is something they understand and have practiced for years, perhaps without realizing it, says Nancy Davenport, President, Council for Library and Information Resources. The model for how libraries have built their collections sounds a lot like The Long Tail. Whether it’s New York Times best-sellers or scholarly journals, libraries stock up on what they need to meet “high point” demand, she says, but also purchase less popular materials to fill out the collection and serve niches, which might be genealogy, travel or the history of furniture making. “Libraries are the edification of The Long Tail,” she says.
Amazon is often cited as the prototypical long tail business, but to me it's still a pale echo of the resources of the library. Sure, Amazon is great when I want to buy something and have it delivered quickly (or check out some user reviews). But I don't want to buy every book I read. Instead, I rely on my favorite long tail organization, the Madison Public Library. They were online even before Amazon existed. In typical long tail fashion, their "ordering process" is friction free and electronic, taking only an instant to reserve the book I want and be notified via email when it comes in.

It's precisely because I value the library's long tail capability that it always saddens me to see it deaccessioning or weeding books from its collection. It's like snipping off part of the tail of that living, breathing organism, the library.

The human cost to human rights abusers

It reads like the beginning of a classic horror story.
A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I'm afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.
But it's not a story. It's not some tortured fantasy designed stimulate the dark recesses of a bored reader's jaded sensibility. It's an Op-Ed in today's Washington Post by Eric Fair, who worked as a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004, after serving as an Arabic linguist in the U.S. Army from 1995 to 2000. He followed orders. He has committed no crime. He is pursued by no law enforcement authorities. Instead, he is pursued by his conscience and his nightmares, and he needs to talk.
The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.
For many Americans, Abu Ghraib and the human rights abuses of the Iraq war are behind us, a few bad apples have been punished, and it's time to move on. But we can't move on until we face what it was the representatives of the United States of America were actually asked to do in our name in the war against terror.
I am desperate to get on with my life and erase my memories of my experiences in Iraq. But those memories and experiences do not belong to me. They belong to history. If we're doomed to repeat the history we forget, what will be the consequences of the history we never knew? The citizens and the leadership of this country have an obligation to revisit what took place in the interrogation booths of Iraq, unpleasant as it may be. The story of Abu Ghraib isn't over. In many ways, we have yet to open the book.
It won't be over until we have held the people who authorized and ordered these transgressions accountable. If then.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

So maybe we don't need a guy who talks a good game so much as a woman who can play the game

I had been leaning toward Edwards because I liked his position on the war more than Hillary's, but his ham-handed response to bloggergate has given me a renewed respect for Hillary's ability to deal with the rightwing spin machine. We're gonna need it. Contrast her sure-footed, rapid response to the WSJ's distortion of her record on the Iraq war to Edwards' defensive reaction when his staffers were challenged by the right. John in DC at AMERICAblog shows us how a pro does it.
The uber-conservative republican Wall Street Journal published an editorial today attacking Senator Hillary Clinton on Iraq (which now makes me wonder if perhaps she's doing something right.) In any case, Hillary's campaign has prepared a point-counterpoint of the charges made in the WSJ editorial. Since Hillary's position on Iraq has been a topic of lively debate of late, I'm publishing the campaign's response, in full.
You can read Hillary's response at AMERICAblog.

I may wish she had spoken out more forcefully against the war. I may not agree with every position she takes, but at least she's not going to flounder when they turn up the heat. Our battered ship of state is going to need a steady hand at the tiller and an experienced crew by the time the Democrats retake the White House.

Edwards' defensive charade: Stern Dad scolds naughty bloggers and they promise to be good

OK, after a scolding from Dad -- "It's not how I talk to people" -- the penitent kids were allowed to stay on after apologizing. MyDD has the statements of all the parties involved.

Most of the commenters there and at other progressive sites seem to think Edwards did the right thing. I disagree, though firing them would have been worse. I think the idea that this ends the matter is wishful thinking. For me, Edwards' none-too-timely, tepid and defensive response leaves a bad taste, raises questions about Edwards' judgement and probably won’t work. It will just embolden his rightwing critics, who will just keep feeding the mainstream media, which have already demonstrated they're not going to frame this in ways that favor Edwards unless he pushes back.

Instead of pushing back, Edwards' statement neither answers his critics nor refutes them. Most people think bosses who publicly chastise their employees suck. It's ugly. And it just opens up new questions, potentially keeping the controversy alive: How did he vet the bloggers? What did he actually know about their writing? What, exactly, does he disagree with? What does this say about his hiring practices? Does "apologizing" make being anti-Catholic OK? Etc., etc. The net result is that people all over the country who never heard of Amanda Marcotte or Melissa McEwen are reading headlines saying things like "Edwards' workers scolded for blogs." Scolded, but not fired. Airing dirty laundry in public. What's that all about? This is how character gets defined in the media.

Edwards and many of his supporters are missing the point. The whole stern boss, penitent employees being given a second chance as long as they stay on their best behavior thing is dumb. This was a political attack on his staff as a way of getting at him, and required a strong response. He comes off as a weak and indecisive compromiser. All in all, a lawyerly response worthy of a trial lawyer. This doesn't help him.

Again, when you're attacked by partisan distortions aimed at influencing media coverage -- whether by swiftboaters or swiftbloggers -- you need to do the right thing. Fast. And you need to know what it is. Kerry didn't. Not sure Edwards does, either.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Binary neocon logic: Iraq as computer

Turns out the Iraq war was just a computer upgrade that went wrong. Honest.

At least in the mind of neocon Douglas Feith, via Juan Cole, who relates that "In the run up to the 2003 war, I'm told, Douglas Feith was challenged by a State Department official who knows the Middle East about what in the world the US would do in Iraq once it won the war."
State Dept. Official: "Doug, after the smoke clears, what is the plan?"

Feith: "Think of Iraq as being like a computer. And think of Saddam as like a processor. We just take out the old processor, and put in a new one--Chalabi."

State Dept. Official: "Put in a new processor?"

Feith: "Yes! It will all be over in 6 weeks."

State Dept. Official: "You mean six months."

Feith: "No, six weeks. You'll see."

State Dept. Official: "Doug."

Feith: "Yes?"

State Dept. Official: "You're smoking crack, Doug."

Feith: "Oh, so you're disloyal to the President, are you?"
I've never been fond of computer upgrades, and have had some nasty ones. But this is ridiculous.

And as Cole makes clear in his post, Feith was not the sort of person you wanted under the impression that you were disloyal to the president. He was given to using his position to settle scores.

When attacked by swiftbloggers, you need to do the right thing. Fast. And you need to know what it is.

When they swiftboated John Kerry, it was a test of his leadership skills, and he failed. He needed to do the right thing, and do it quickly, but the moment passed.

When the rightwing spin machine threatens to turn into a whirlwind sweeping up the mainstream media in its wake, you can't just stand there. You have to act decisively and quickly. Sort of like a president in a crisis that won't wait. Instead, Kerry took too long to respond, seemingly thinking that nobody could possibly take these ridiculous charges seriously. They probably wouldn't have, if he had responded meaningfully when it counted. The slanderous canards of the right colored the master narrative of the mainstream media -- there's something not quite right about John Kerry.

Now that his former running mate, John Edwards, is getting swiftblogged, he seems to be falling into the same trap. All the day the headlines have been multiplying like a nasty virus replicating madly. Not a word from the candidate. Appearances take over and soon facts -- about Edwards, about his bloggers and about his critics -- won't matter. It will be too late.

This dispiriting saga has been playing out all day. As I write, there's still no rebuttal from the Edwards campaign to the Salon story saying they gave in to the attack by the rightwing noise machine and fired their two new blogging staffers.
The right-wing blogosphere has gotten its scalps -- John Edwards has fired the two controversial bloggers he recently hired to do liberal blogger outreach, Salon has learned.

The bloggers, Amanda Marcotte, formerly of Pandagon, and Melissa McEwan, of Shakespeare's Sister, had come under fire from right-wing bloggers for statements they had previously made on their respective blogs. A statement by the Catholic League's Bill Donohue, which called Marcotte and McEwan "anti-Catholic vulgar trash-talking bigots," and an accompanying article on the controversy in the New York Times this morning, put extra pressure on the campaign.
While there's some confusion as to whether they have actually been fired, at the very least, Amanda and Melissa have been left dangling in the wind for the better part of a day. Every moment that passes without Edwards making a statement implicitly validates the charges.

Meanwhile, the swiftbloggers have been going nuts. The Family Unit Functioning as a Wingnut Echo Chamber Tag Team was especially striking. Rick Moran gleefully posted "Crashing and Burning" on Rightwing Nuthouse:
My brother Terry (who has a new blog that you should bookmark immediately) gets it exactly right:

Questions: What, if anything, does it tell us about Edwards that he’s joined up with this blogger? Is Edwards’ association with a person who has written these things a legitimate issue for voters, as they wonder—among other things—whom he might appoint to high office if he’s elected? If a Republican candidate teamed up with a right-wing blogger who spewed this kind of venom, how would people react? Is the mere raising of this issue a kind of underhanded censorship, a way of ruling out of bounds some kinds of opinion? Are we all just going to have to get used to a more rough-and-tumble, profane, and even hate-filled public arena in the age of the blogosphere?

Like any good journalist, he is asking the right questions – and the questions sort of answer themselves, don’t they? (HT: Malkin)
Brother Terry Moran of ABC News chimed in on his blog, asking of Edwards in the spirit of disinterested inquiry "Does John Edwards Condone Hate Speech?"
At issue are Marcotte's comments on her own blog, Pandagon (http://www.pandagon.net/), which has staked out a prominent place in the left-wing blogosphere. It's pretty strong stuff; her comments about other people's faiths could well be construed as hate speech.

Edwards Questions: What, if anything, does it tell us about Edwards that he's joined up with this blogger? Is Edwards' association with a person who has written these things a legitimate issue for voters, as they wonder--among other things--whom he might appoint to high office if he's elected? If a Republican candidate teamed up with a right-wing blogger who spewed this kind of venom, how would people react?
For this he gets paid the big bucks? If he's looking for some venom on the right, why doesn't he talk to Patrick Hynes, John McCain's blogger-consultant?

The longer there's no word from the Edwards camp, it's hard to avoid the cynical speculation that his people have been trying to broker a phony agreement whereby Edwards supports Amanda and Melissa's free speech rights 100%, while they say they're resigning to spare the campaign the "distraction." In any event, the longer this thing drags on, the more the outcome becomes a foregone conclusion. Not good.

Edwards is rapidly sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire where there's no good alternative -- and where "do the right thing" becomes an oxymoron. Sound familiar?

FEB. 8 UPDATE: Above.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Stunning "Nova" profile of Percy L. Julian


Pioneering research chemist Percy L. Julian (1899-1975). Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest


Watched an extraordinary 2-hour "Nova" tonight, "Forgotten Genius," about organic chemist Percy L. Julian, a pioneering black chemist who was one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. Here in Madison, the "forgotten" part of the title seems a bit excessive. The name is familiar here, because his son Percy Jr. is a prominent local civil rights attorney, as Doug Moe relates in the Capital Times.
Percy, who graduated from the UW Law School back in the '60s, is actually Percy Jr., and remarkable in his own right. He is one of the best civil rights attorneys Madison has ever had, which is another way of saying he has spent his life helping ordinary people stand up to power. Thirty-five years ago, Whitney Gould in this newspaper called Julian "the first man to whom young dissenters in this city turn for help."

Back in the Vietnam era, when state courts were looking at student anti-war demonstrators and seeing criminals, Julian did something nobody had thought of before. He took his young clients into federal court, where a judge, James Doyle, the current governor's dad, said that students have rights, too.
We soon learn that whatever we thought we knew, it was just the tip pf the iceberg. It's a remarkable program, beautifully produced. To begin with, it's a fascinating history of mid-century organic chemistry that really makes it come alive for the lay viewer -- at least enough to appreciate some of the magnitude of Jullian's achievements (among other things, he developed the production process that made cortisone an affordable drug for millions of arthritis sufferers). The period re-enactments with Tony Award-winning actor and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson portraying Julian are especially well done. It adds up to a powerful evocation of a man who achieved greatly against great odds, and could have achieved even more in a less racist society.
Percy Jr. told NOVA that his father was "a good person who never reached his potential. Who shot for the stars and came close. Who took advantage of the country's promise of equality, but was in some ways undone by the country's failure to live up to that promise."
Here's a link to the NYT story about the documentary, and the "Nova" website has a wealth of information. If you missed the show, a preview is up today. Starting tomorrow, they'll be streaming the program on the website.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

What to do on Super Bowl afternoon in Madison with a wind chill of -23 outside

What to do when the windows look like this, and it's sunny outside with a wind chill of -23 in the middle of the afternoon?

If you're made of hardier stuff than Madison Guy, you might try going outside and embracing the cold.

Or you could go soak up the sunny, tropical ambience at the Bolz Conservatory of Olbrich Botanical Gardens.

Or you could play with the cat.

At least until he gets bored, and it's about time for the game to start.

The march of folly is aimed directly at Iran

Reviewing the new Kevin Phillips book American Theocracy in Salon last year, Michelle Goldberg began by talking about Barbara Tuchman's 1984 book, The March of Folly.
In 1984, the renowned historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Barbara Tuchman published "The March of Folly," a book about how, over and over again, great powers undermine and sabotage themselves. She documented the perverse self-destructiveness of empires that clung to deceptive ideologies in the face of contrary evidence, that spent carelessly and profligately, and that obstinately refused to change course even when impending disaster was obvious to those willing to see it. Such recurrent self-deception, she wrote, "is epitomized in a historian's statement about Philip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: 'No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.'"
The beat goes on, and a whole new generation of dunderheads persists in their folly. While Congress struggles to cope ineffectually with the war in Iraq, the neocons aren't sitting still. They and their friends are thinking ahead to the next one. Congress should think about stopping it before it starts. Here's a sampling of what they've been saying, quoted in Craig Unger's "From the Wonderful Folks Who Brought You Iraq" in the March Vanity Fair:

Meyrav Wurmser
Director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute and wife of Cheney Middle East adviser David Wurmser
Nevertheless, neoconservatives still advocate continuing on the path Netanyahu staked out in his speech and taking the fight to Iran. As they see it, the Iraqi debacle is not the product of their failed policies. Rather, it is the result of America's failure to think big. "It's a mess, isn't it?" says Meyrav Wurmser, who now serves as director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Hudson Institute. "My argument has always been that this war is senseless if you don't give it a regional context."
Reuel Marc Gerecht
American Enterprise Institute fellow
She isn't alone. One neocon after another has made the same plea: Iraq was the beginning, not the end. Writing in The Weekly Standard last spring, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, made the neocon case for bombing Iran's nuclear sites. Brushing away criticism that a pre-emptive attack would cause anti-Americanism within Iran, Gerecht asserted that it "would actually accelerate internal debate" in a way that would be "painful for the ruling clergy." As for imperiling the U.S. mission in Iraq, Gerecht argued that Iran "can't really hurt us there." Ultimately, he concluded, "we may have to fight a war—perhaps sooner rather than later—to stop such evil men from obtaining the worst weapons we know."
Benjamin Netanyahu
Former and possibly future prime minister of Israel
More recently, Netanyahu himself, who may yet return to power in Israel, went as far as to frame the issue in terms of the Holocaust. "Iran is Germany, and it's 1938," he said during a CNN interview in November. "Except that this Nazi regime that is in Iran … wants to dominate the world, annihilate the Jews, but also annihilate America."
Let's see. Bringing democracy to Iraq and spreading it like a benign virus was going to be the regional solution, wasn't it? Didn't we fight the Iraq war to stop an evil man and his weapons of mass destruction? And didn't the Iraqis just execute the Middle East Hitler who was going to annihilate America?

The March of folly is aimed directly at Iran now, ready to recreate the mistakes of Iraq on a much larger scale. Does the Democratic Congress have the guts to stop it? Stay tuned.