The man who covered what are called “high profile” crime stories for the magazine Vanity Fair died yesterday at the age of 83. The cause was a tumor of the bladder. Dunne’s own daughter was murdered and he wrote about the trial of her accused killer, an action which got him deeply interested in the workings of the criminal “justice” system. He wrote a number of articles for VF on the OJ Simpson trial, and produced a series of memoirs and crime novels exploring the innards of the Justice organization, and the lives and follies of the very, very well heeled, and how these two realms intersect. Dunne was a good writer, who knew how to create characters and how to keep a story moving, so his books are worth reading. He had a good degree of commercial success and traveled in the circles that many people would like to be in them, but he seems to have kept his perspective.
Apple Computers has released an update package for its current OS, under the name Snow Leopard. It goes on sale tomorrow, and retails for about $30. The Gadget Lab blog at Wired magazine has six tips for those people thinking about buying Snow Leopard for their Mac machines. You can read the item at the link below, but in essence the pitch is that SL is an upgrade, not a new version, it makes some things work better, but doesnâ€™t matter much to other things, and there are some pre-requisites of technical nature that your machine must meet. GL gnomes will be testing the Leopard throughout the week and posting their appraisal.
If you have never seen The Third Man, you should. It’s included in the canon of All Time Greats, but, apart from that, it’s a good movie, and it has the unusual distinction of being much better than the Graham Greene novel on which it was based. Set in post WWII Vienna, it’s gritty, unsentimental and does not have a happy ending. Orson Welles starred and directed. Joseph Cotton, Trevor Howard and Vali were also in it. I’m writing about this because a new book has appeared, with almost the same title, but it’s about something entirely different, namely, the conviction experienced by many people in dangerous situations that Somebody Else is present, to help out, guide, and encourage, even though nobody else is there. It’s a fairly common experience among mountaineers, who have somehow gotten themselves into trouble, but similar stories have been recounted by shipwrecked seamen, polar explorers, POWs, travelers in the desrt, etc. In at least some cases, the conviction is so strong that it prompts “real world” actions, such as trying to share food rations, or water, only to find that there is no one around. The author speculates on the possible explanations for the phenomenon, and even if these may be not entirely convincing, the collection of survival stories should be gripping.
The Third Man Factor, By John Geiger.Weinstein, 297 pages, $24.95
Mr. Geiger is a fellow at the University of Toronto
They said it couldn’t be done, but he said, yes it can too be done, and I’m going to do it. And, he did. Stanley Kaplan died yesterday at age 90. He founded the Kaplan preparation schools to help candidates get ready for standardized tests, such as the SAT. The folks who created the SAT said that coaching and preping could not raise scores more than a teeny bit, if at all, because the tests were the tests. Kaplan thought that was baloney, and proved it. He also turned prepping for tests such as the SAT, the MCAT, LSAT and the whole pack of them turned into big business, with his own group out front. He was the son of poor immigrants, and wanted to go to med school, but never got in, because, he says, he went to public college, CCNY I think, and was Jewish. Back then, both of these were no-nos…well, OK, they let in a few Jews, but not too many. Numerus clausus they called it in the Old Country, and we had it here too. Kaplan had a very hard time selling his services on college campuses, as they were distinctly unsympathetic to anybody trying to tarnish the rep of the standardized tests as totally fair and objective predictors of academic success or professional aptitude, but the students jumped at the chance to get a leg up on the testers , and to learn some tricks that would boost their scores even a few points. Kaplan’s company took off, and now test prepping is here to stay. He was an interesting guy who fought some hard battles against Establishment institutions, and it’s hard not to sympathize with him.
Steve Jobs returned to Apple Computers from medical leave in June, and one of the items he’s watching very intently is the progress of the company’s Tablet project. Many ears in the IT industry have been planted firmly to ground, straining for any bits of insider information on how this far-famed product is doing, and when it will be released. Buzz says the Tablet is supposed to slug it out with Amazon’s Kindle series of ebook readers, and do other things besides. Various launch dates have been suggested, and one story even goes as far as suggesting that there will be not one, but two Tablets: a version aimed at the education market and another, larger one, designed for video applications. The gadget blog over at Wired magazine posted on the Tablet’s progress and is predicting that there will be a release, this winter, around the time of the big consumer electronics show.
The Wikipedia was conceived as Volksencyclopedia, in which all the expertise which supposedly lay fallow out there could be put to use as experts, but not necessarily academically certified ones, wrote articles on things they know about and had them included in book. Anybody could edit any entry. And, that’s what happened, often with absurd or hilarious consequences, as people just messed around with other people or settled scores or demonstrated they had too much time to spare. The encyclopedia kept growing, though, and now in its English version it’s approaching a total of three million articles. Growing as well was a sense that all this earlier fooling around was intolerable, really, in a resource that wanted to be taken seriously. Now, it seems the WP(E) is going to adopt some of the very tough editing postures that have been in effect in the German version for some time now. WP(D) blocks any changes on articles dealing with living persons until the article has been approved by a trusted editor. To some, this is another example of the city-slickers and suit-wearers fencing in the frontier, but to others, it’s a sign that it’s time to grow up and put aside childish things. So, no more vandalous edits on Obama or Joan Rivers or some singer named Spears. The board of the Wikipedia Foundation is to meet in Buenas Aires to discuss this and other matters of high moment. Read the item in today’s New York Times.
Two more atagonists entered the arena against the Google Book Deal, and they’re pretty beefy ones too. Microsoft and Yahoo have both entered documents with the court which is to approve the settlement, stating that the grounds for their opposition is fear of a possible monopoly by Google. How Microsoft can say that with a straight face is another question. I picked this story up on Reuters, the news agency that got its start by being first back to London with the news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. Well, there’s another Clash of the Titans going on, but Arthur Wellesley, first Duke of Wellington, is long past caring about the outcome. We, however, are very much interested. It’s not clear to me what MS and Yahoo are after, other than to annoy Google. MS got out of the book digitization game and Yahoo never was in it. All that piety about concern for competition seems pretty lame. Maybe it will become clearer in a little while.
PS: I want to add a note here about the mixed response to the Deal on the part of publishers and other agencies in Europe. Some, such as Oxford University Press and the German media biggie Bertelsmann, are in favor. Others, including many smaller houses and publishers’ associations are very unhappy, thinking they will somehow come out on the short end. Some are both for and against at the same time: France’s Bibliotheque Nationale was severely critical of the digitization project, but now is consulting with the Archdemon G on a plan to digitize the BN’s own enormous collection. Go figure. The Deal covers US publishers and authors, but the whole industry is so interconnected that the Europeans are right to watch what happens. A ruling by the judge in the case is expected in early October.
I posted a short item about Rupert Murdoch’s plan to charge viewers for access to news stories and other items appearing in his papers, especially the Wall Street Journal, with a little affect in there, suggesting that he was on the same path as that guy with the horse and the windmills and all. But, it turns out he’s not alone. In fact, he has some big-stick company. The venerable Financial Times has maintained almost all its materials behind a for-pay barrier, and the consensus was that they were fatally old-hat, not with the ethic of cyberspace, information wanting to be free, as we hear a lot. But, the FT may have been on to something all along, and other news agencies are starting to look more carefully at the FT posture and see how it’s done.
In one of the great moments of American film, Dustin Hoffman, as the newly graduated young man on the verge of beginning what is commonly called “real life”, is cornered by one of the more boring guests at a party, and told that the key to the future lay in one word…”plastics”. I haven’t seen The Graduate in a while, and I wonder how well it wears, but that aside, the word for young graduates today is “statistics”. At least that’s what The New York Times says, and the reason for it is all the data that is being gathered on the web by search engines and commercial or government sites. The amount is enormous, and growing, beggaring description by even such outsize terms as “avalanche” or “tsunami”. It cries out for rationalization, analysis, and meaning. And, statisticians are just the boys and girls to do it. The career opportunities are pretty good, and the outlook is bright. Companies and agencies are hiring, since they have figured out that way too much of their operational posture is based on guessing and intuitions. But, doing the math trumps all that nine times out of nine and the answers will come that way or not at all so, things look good for the numerate. And it holds true across the board, meaning that a background or major or degree in math is not a career requirement. If you’ve got the data skills, no matter what the major, there may be a slot for you. Astronomy majors, biologists, historians and the whole academic circus are welcome, if they have the chops. Statisticians as bonus-babies? Well, we’ve seen crazier things. Of course, this is not everybody’s thing. It’s not mine, for sure, but I am constantly amazed at the way things work out. Ten years ago, nobody, and I mean nobody, would have predicted this. But this is now, and may the number nerds prosper!
Years ago, boys and girls, there was only radio and the movies. A popular comedian named Fred Allen had a show on Sunday nights, and part of each broadcast was a trip through “Allen’s Alley”. There were several characters: Senator Claghorn, the blowhard Southern politico, Titus Moody, the taciturn Yankee, Mrs. Nussbaum, a Jewish lady. Allen was a smart guy and a lot of the dialog was sharp and witty, with barbs at politicians, celebrities and other targets. I loved it. So, today we will swing down my own little contrivance, Al’s Alley, and knock on a few doors.
First, we have some e-book news from SONY, which announced a move to an e-book standard for their offerings. So, something you bought for the Reader can also be read on other devices. This is good news for consumers, but not for Amazon, which has a lock on the software used by its Kindle fleet, so that only Amazon titles can be read on the machines. SONY has upped the ante a good bit with this, and it shows how quickly the field is moving.
Around the corner, in the espresso bar, is a courier from Seattle, handing us a sheet of good news as he sips his latte: the newspaper situation there is improving. The Post-Intelligencer closed some months ago, but the Seattle Times is doing pretty well. Circulation is up, as a lot of P-I subscribers moved to the Times, which, by the way, is one of the few family owned papers still left standing. And, the P-I continues in an exclusively digital form, and is not doing too badly either. Of course, if a paper avoids total extinction it can be said to doing pretty well nowadays, but this is a little good news. The Times has done some very good detailed reporting on the aviation industry, which in Seattle, means Boeing, the area’s biggest employer.
Here in this charming little cottage dwelleth an Australian by name of Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch, the William Randolph Hearst of our era. Mr. M. is possessed of the idea that really, deep down inside, people simply want to, and will, pay for the things they read on the Internet, especially news stories from the many sources he controls. All previous “news for pay” schemes have flopped, but M thinks he’s got the special something that will turn the trick. Maybe. Murdoch maintains that quality journalism costs, and that no news outfit can afford to give things away. He’s right about the costing part, but the early policy of all Internet sites was free, free, free….partly I suspect because there was no effective way to collect ‘micro payments’ then, and partly, I suspect further, because some people were convinced that a site could always add charges ‘later’. But, the peasants voted with their feet, and stopped visiting once the cash register had been installed. If Murdoch can reverse almost 20 years of user behavior, it will be an accomplishment.
The noisy neighbor must be a fan of Leo Fender, designer of those fabulous Rock guitars, born on the 10th of August in 1909. He never learned to play, but he came up with designs that were absolutely eye-popping.
Finally, that portly old gentleman there, why, it’s that former whippersnapper Wikipedia, so full of sass and vinegar at one time and now entering what is politely called “maturity”! It seems that fewer articles are being added to WP, as the total approaches the 3 million mark. I guess they are looking for a second act. Still it has been an achievement, despite all the hoopla. Yes, the quality of contributions is still uneven. Some are excellent and some are awful, but you get the feeling that somebody is working on this. I used to regard it with more than a little reserve, but in a couple of recent projects, I found some factual and thoughtful articles on what I needed. There may still be the occasional fist fight about the correct use of the Dative case in Klingon, but we hear less about that.
OK, we’ve come to the end of the trail and it’s time to go get ready for school. That was always the worst part about the end of the Fred Allen show: bedtime, and school the next day. The school part was so bad, but the getting up on a freezing morning in Niagara Falls part was a lot tougher. Happy Days.