Yes, there’s a word for this.

Commentators today (enough, at least, that I needn’t bother linking) are viewing last night’s GOP victory in Massachusetts not just for what it is – a potentially staggering setback to healthcare reform – but, more prominently, as a potential reflection on “the president’s agenda,” on “the country’s direction,” as “a referendum” on all our none of these things.Potentially it involves the Red Sox.But the fact is, we do actually have an electoral ballot measure called a referendum. These are the annoying little questions at the end of everyone’s ballot that ask about issues that most people have no real capacity to answer; occasionally they do things like affect the fate of same-sex marriage in Maine. But last night was a special election: none of these things were on the agenda.

Unlike every major election since, I’m guessing here, Dewey failed to actually defeat Truman, there was no professional exit polling conducted last night. As Slate rightly points out, we can’t know whether women left Coakley’ s camp or whether elderly voters were really tickled by Scott Brown’s truck.

Representative democracy tricks us into thinking that limited events genuinely reflect the will, motive, and fundamental being of a people. They do not. All told, last night, 100,000 voters were the final margin of victory for the nation’s newest Senator. These people live in a state that already mandates universal healthcare coverage. That their collective will could somehow reflect the national impulse to extend healthcare to another 40 million separate individuals is preposterous. This fallacy isn’t just limited to politics; it’s latent in the assumption that the most popular show on television is really watched by a majority of the populace. But it’s always the simplest, most readily gobbled narrative. Because we’re accustomed to living in a country of We the People, where a part always stands in for a whole, we tend to see every action as a movement, rather than what it might be instead: a sample population less than the size of Fenway Park itself.

Follow-up: Conor Friedersdorf detects a second fallacy – the assumption that any outcome reflects whatever my worldview happens to be. Generally we call this politics.


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The Great Pinker-Gladwell Feud of ’09

[This summary belongs to a longer, master post on Malcolm Gladwell more generally, but is stranded here because I can’t bear to look at, let alone regurgitate, this actual commentary again.]

What happens when you talk back to Malcolm Gladwell?

Stephen Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and himself the author of a bestselling pop science book issued a marginally scathing review of Gladwell’s latest “What the Dog Saw” in the New York Times in which he criticized both Gladwell’s tendency to hold forth on scientific topics in which he has no formal training, as well as his very ability to Google a concept like the eigenvalue (which Gladwell, for no particular reason, calls the Igon Value) before committing it to print. Gladwell, a staff writer for the New Yorker when he isn’t producing colossally successful tomes, responded by writing the Times a nasty letter in which he disputed the validity of Pinker’s own analysis, and where he brushed aside the Igon Value thing as a matter of spelling (although just how the articulation of a Crucial Concept through the Abundant Exercise of Capital Letters is itself a matter of spelling remains a mystery). Pinker responded. This minor literary tiff received quite a wealth of coverage online, both from the relevant publishers (the Times along with the New Yorker‘s Book Blog, which both did a respectable job of presenting the argument without taking sides) as well as the blogosphere at large.

Gladwell’s books continue to sell millions of volumes. Pinker, for his part, has disappeared from reviews for the Times, unless he’s been banished to reviewing books less popular than this one, in which case, no one would have noticed.

The fact that Pinker and Gladwell, with a little work, would have almost the same hairstyle went largely unremarked upon.

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09/24/09 – Gmail Running on Fumes, Contact List Down

Following this month’s widespread outage, early accounts would seem to hold that Gmail has again been knocked by some kind of service interruption.

I’d imagine that this must say something about our communal reliance on a single mail platform for coordinating a large swath of information, but it’s probably likewise telling that the only way to find out if anyone else is having trouble is to search on Twitter (just try Googling the problem. Just try).

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“Up until the tarantulas arrived late last year” – Tom Wolfe’s Newest/Oldest Fiction Debuted in Vanity Fair

Having written some 50 pages in one shot on just one of Tom Wolfe’s less-great essays, I probably have more than a little bit of sympathy for the man and his craft, regardless of how dreadfully tailored some of the scenes in his recent ‘Charlotte Simmons’ were. Yet in the most recent Vanity Fair, Wolfe contributes yet another installment in his chronicle of white collar woes that began with ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities.’

The piece itself is largely irrelevant – and this too, one supposes, ought to be a genuine problem – but the most troubling aspect of the entire affair is the “I’m just not trying anymore” bagginess of the title. After producing works called ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,’ ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,’ and, oh yeah, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities,’ Wolfe’s piece is called, bluntly, ‘The Rich Have Feelings, Too.’ One almost prays that there’s something immensely freighted that might be derived from that comma placement. There isn’t. Worse still is the mind-boggling way that VF chooses to bill the piece in its URL header at the top of your browser. Most newspapers and magazines would be content to simply reiterate the title and author of the piece (“Tapping a Maple on a Cold Vermont Morning” by Kenneth Cosgrove, the end), but VF instead offers a kind of summary of the entire piece in general, something that might be a service had they been charged with minimizing the absurdity of something like ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Etc. Etc.’ But what Vanity Fair offers is:

“Tom Wolfe on the rich”

Really? With these five words, the magazine seems to inadvertently be parodying Wolfe’s own career trajectory. That’s it? I mean, what else could Wolfe possibly be writing about to begin with? By giving us five words that make Wolfe as usual sound like Wolfe as usual, it’s as though the editors at Vanity Fair really want us to consider whether this latest installment is worth reading.

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What the Font? – Ikea Cheapens Cheap Furniture with Cheap Typeface

Design gurus are reacting with disgust that Ikea has moved to change its signature font from whatever it was before (bonus points who can honestly tell me they’ve paid attention to Ikea’s typeface before, ever) to the generic Verdana, which not only is rather aesthetically galling, but is packaged by the always insidious Microsoft Corporation.

The company’s reason for the change is simply that Verdana, by being an omnipresent font, makes it easier for the company to generate ad copy in a variety of countries and languages, but when last I checked (7 seconds ago), font selection for letters in the Latin alphabet has no effect on the corresponding shape of inserted Chinese characters.

Very seldom do we pay honest attention to typography. Once upon a time I was told that serif fonts (Times New Roman, Garamond etc) are more psychologically welcoming than the sans-serif variety (Arial), only because the added brackets around things like a capital T make it easier for the eye to scan across very quickly. I have no idea whether or not this is true, but it does drive me marginally batty that when I type my posts here, I’m forced to endure their lifeless, serif-free shapes until I hit “Publish” and they’re magically reinforced again, like knights donning their armor. Perhaps that was too much.

Where all of this might prove relevant is in an extension of the “don’t judge a book by its cover” philosophy. As we move closer and closer to an age where your E Ink driven reading device (read: Kindle, although it was well predated by Sony’s eReader) is responsible for automatically standardizing the font used by any or all of its electronic works, might it not prove worthwhile to actually isolate what the best “standard” font could be? I know that in the past, I’ve actually turned away from buying a certain book (which, by the way, had amazing cover design) only because it’s inch high Arial characters struck me as alternately cartoonish, amateurish, or as a deliberate conceit that had failed miserably; I knew, try that I might, that I wasn’t willing to slog through 600 pages of this stuff. Toni Morrison and her publishers seem to have the same issue; perhaps because it worked for ‘Beloved,’ all of Morrison’s novels, regardless of historical time period (and including the 17th century-esque ‘A Mercy‘), are printed in what really appears to be an abysmally mimicked version of Courier New, the very same font that everyone under thirty once used when trying to fabricate faux historical document in school, right before you dipped the paper in tea and let your mom apply a match to its edges.

If we’re going to decry the death of print, the death of the novel, the death of literature, the death of whateverelse, shouldn’t that mean that we should, at least, make some effort to preserve the variety of typographies that once were wedded to these works, to maintain something of their visuality? Ikea’s silliness aside, I for one don’t know what I’d do in a future populated only by sparse, Arial characters. Well, maybe I do. Thanks, WordPress.


PS – For the record, the title of this post was shamelessly ripped from the enormously versatile website WhatTheFont, which allows users to upload pictures with text, asks users to manually type in what the text says (the obvious example being something like “got milk?“) and then, based on matching the image shapes to the user’s input, determines what typeface the image uses, something that must have been enormously useful to the people who came up with “got pus?

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Is Jimmy Wales 2009’s Big Brother, and Do the Newest Changes to Wikipedia Call for Live Updating?

What could the potential fallout be from Wikipedia’s recent policy changes? Well, there’s always this, for starters.

Because Wikipedia stems from such egalitarian roots, it’s far from customary to think of its administrators, it’s difficult to think of its administrators as participants in some kind of evil empire. But that’s not to say it can’t happen. The Times reports that the Spanish-language version of Wikipedia’s site has been aggressively editing out links to the political aggregator, and then aggressively banning any of the users who complain too loudly. The editing isn’t a necessarily new thing (links to would be removed from the English version of the site, in favor of simply rerouting to the original content), but by banning contributors, the Spanish stewards of Wikipedia’s empire do seem to suggest that their actions are politically rather than pedagogically motivated.

Despite Wikipedia’s umbrella insistence on article neutrality, the addition of a series of gatekeepers who have the right to approve changes to articles about living people might very well spell the end for true objectivity. Everyone has a bias, even if they don’t wear it on their sleeves, and it takes very little for someone to reject a change to, say, someone’s war record or to someone’s supposed extramarital affair.

In the old days, if someone, I dunno, wanted to change a politician’s religious orientation to “the cult of Obama,” just to cite a recent example, he was more or less free to do so, and odds were, this change would be stripped by another user in seconds, and likely, for that matter, counterbalanced by whatever flowery things this newest editor had to say about said politician. A “Roman Catholic” becomes a “cult[ist] of Obama” becomes a “devout Catholic and devoted family man.” That sort of thing. Objectivity is represented in the invisible pivot point between each valence; someone viewing the page three different times in quick succession would receive a host of opinions on one narrow topic, and by doing so would have access to the full range of opinions on the matter.

If this flickering of opinions is the height that Wikipedia can strive to achieve, is its very ideal, then one reaction might be for the site to move towards live updating of its articles, with incoming changes being transmitted in one color text and deletions hovering in the periphery before vanishing into oblivion. One imagines that the strain this would place on the site’s servers would be severe, but other sites that attract a large volume of traffic like the Huffington Post manage to remotely refresh their content at semi-regular intervals. Rather than locking people out, maybe the solution to Wikipedia’s editing woes is simply to let the lay public in on what flickering changes are going on behind the scenes.

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Ted Kennedy and the Wikipedia Ripple

Foremost, my condolences to the family of Ted Kennedy, and to the citizens of the great state of Massachusetts, of which I can now be proud to count myself a member.

Kennedy’s death late last night comes almost immediately following Wikipedia’s announcement that it will begin locking the articles of living people subject to review by a panel of Wikipedia administrators, a policy aimed at preventing incidents like the vandalism of Kennedy’s own profile on January 20th after Wiki edits prematurely claimed that he had died following a collapse at the inauguration. The policy, which is already in place for every article on the German language version of the site, is intended to prevent the spurious fabrication of information that could prove “devastating to those individuals.” One might recall a less famous incident whereby 90s sitcom star Sinbad received calls from concerned family members who had read on the comedian’s Wikipedia page that he was dead – he wasn’t.

This too follows Wikipedia’s announcement of its 3 millionth article, a milestone that it took the site so long to reach following its 2 millionth that researchers (such as Ed Chi at the Palo Alto Research Center) have declared that the site has long since plateaued, stagnated. Wikipedia is like your crazy Uncle Jim, long since over the hill, but still pretending that disco is going to make a comeback.

That being said, although morbid, it might be possible to suggest that Wikipedia’s fullest opportunity for expansion still does come with the death of certain high profile individuals, and thus that founder Jimmy Wales’ newly installed policy is both counter-intuitive and actually downright harmful. The Times article cited above, as well as virtually every recent news reference to the site more generally, makes a point of mentioning just how many page views Michael Jackson’s Wiki page experienced in the hours immediately after his death (6 million in 24 hours, and 24 million more since then). Although reports of Wiki traffic following Kennedy’s death have obviously not yet been released, one too would imagine the figure to be staggering. Yet merely looking at the history update for Kennedy’s page tells an interesting enough story on its own – that events of this magnitude not only draw in readers, but generate new content.

The first report of Kennedy’s death came in at 05:19 on the site’s internal clock; since then, nearly 300 additional edits have been made, expanding on events from Kennedy’s early life, including reams of quotations from current politicians on the man’s legacy, and even creating additional, wholly new spin-off pages regarding Kennedy’s vacant seat and the host of individuals who might be considered for eventual nomination. Since I’ve been writing this, a dozen new edits have been made, many by people with only their IP addresses listed, or, that is, without active Wikipedia accounts. What this suggests is that those seeking news on Kennedy’s passing are likewise compelled to yet further contribute to the page, and by extension to the Wikipedia project as a whole. Very few of these posts are of the vandalism variety; just prior to his death, Kennedy’s religion was changed from Roman Catholicism to “the cult of Obama,” and yet since, even the man’s most ardent critics seem content to let him rest in peace.

Now imagine what might have transpired under Wikipedia’s new policy. As a living politician (and one who had recently been subject to erroneous reporting, no less), Kennedy’s profile would have been locked until a critical mass of news sources had corroborated his death. This means that the enormous influx of curious readers would have only landed on, say, the AP’s website, the New York Times‘, the Boston Globe‘s. In the same way that Twitter and Tumblr make it so ludicrously easy to register (even sans email) that every visitor would be foolish to not just go ahead and set up an account, Wikipedia’s imperative ought to be that every visitor feel compelled to make an edit of some kind. And yet with traffic rerouted to conventional news sites in the interim between Kennedy’s death and the unlocking of his page, all of that traffic, all of those potential insights and revisions, are lost.

Obviously Wikipedia is a compendium of knowledge, and not an exercise in journalism, but it still remains in the site’s interest to be the first spot on the web to announce breaking news. To distance ourselves from any immediate event, let’s say that I’m a Staten Island commuter and I see Sonny Corleone positively riddled with bullets while passing through a tollbooth. Since I’m not a credentialed member of the press, I can’t verily call up the New York Post to pass along the scoop. Doesn’t Wikipedia want me to come to them with this vital, if uncorroborated, information? Wouldn’t the Corleone family want me to do so as well, if only so that they can begin plotting their revenge? Wikipedia, in its infancy, seemed predicated on the democratizing thought that the insights of people like our hypothetical commuter are important, more than important, but the very way in which we’re meant to see the world.

It would be nice to feel that way again.

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