Handwriting a Dying Art, Let’s Kill Truth Too

Purveyor of beauty Khoi Vinh laments the deteriorating state of his handwriting.

I’ve noticed the same with my handwriting.  He and his readers draw the conclusion that beautiful writing is a casualty of technology.  I recently had a related insight, about technology’s impact on beauty in general.

Tim Sneath recently helped the British Library digitize some of the most beautiful handwritten books in history.  The moment of insight came to me several months ago as I was looking through the copy of William Blake’s notebook hosted therein.  As you read through his notes (and those of the other great thinkers represented there), you’re struck by how much effort it must have taken to distill and refine his thoughts.  Looking through the notebook, you realize that this was Blake contemplating and refining insights which would eventually become jewels of wisdom.  This was his thought process, an extension of his mind.

It’s hard to imagine using such crappy tools as pen and paper to do serious thinking today.  If Da Vinci, Blake, and Milton were able to reach such heights of wisdom without copy/paste, search, C-Pen, Amazon.com, and keyboards — what does that say about people today?  We ought to be able to arrive at truth 100x quicker than they did, but we definitely don’t.

Advice for Dealing with your Phone Company

 Sprint is now refusing service to customers who make too many support calls.  Verizon recently started shutting off people who use too much of the “unlimited” data plan. 

In both cases, the phone company unilaterally changed the service policy without informing customers.  I would love to be able to unilaterally change the amount of money I agree to pay, but apparently it doesn’t work that way.

I don’t use Verizon or Sprint, but since they seem so business-savvy, I am now considering plans with both.  Here is my advice when signing up for a new plan:

Above all, be patient and meticulous.  it is very important to get all of the details of your phone plan correct before you give your name, and activate your service.  Researching the plans can be a very time-consuming process.  For example, I had to call Verizon three times yesterday.  They are advertising a “5 cents plan” for long distance, which doesn’t really cost 5 cents.  I don’t mind that they lie about the cost, but I need to know how much it really costs.  It says 7 cents on the web page, but when you click the link for details, it says 11 cents.




Since 11 cents is more than 100% more expensive than the advertised rate, it’s important to know these things.  You wont find this out without spending a lot of time interrogating the representatives on the phone, and a verbal commitment from a phone representative is essentially worthless anyway.  You need to obtain their commitment in writing before establishing a billing relationship.

It is not always possible to get every service commitment documented in writing.  For example, “unlimited” usually doesn’t mean unlimited, it just means undocumented.  For Sprint, you will need to verify things such as “how many service calls per month can I make without having my service terminated?”  For these ambiguous service commitments, you will need patience and diligence.  Follow this procedure:

  1. Prepare a list of all ambiguous service terms (“unlimited”, service calls, roaming, etc.)
  2. Call the sales line, make it clear that you are eager to purchase an expensive plan so long as your final minor questions are answered
  3. Ask the representative’s name, and keep a record of this along with time and date, for your notes
  4. Enumerate the resources which you’ve already consulted, to show that you are prepared
  5. Ask for clarification on the ambiguous terms.  Make it clear that you will not make a service commitment without clear commitment on their side.
  6. If the clarifications are made, say thank you and ask for these policies to be provided in written form that you can keep for your records.
  7. If the representative cannot clarify any of these items, politely request to be transferred to a representative who can (this often results in disconnected calls)
  8. Write down everything that is said
  9. At this point, you probably have a verbal commitment on some items, which is relatively worthless.  If verbal commitment is all you can obtain, you will need to re-confirm this
  10. Wait a couple of days and repeat steps 2-8, repeat at least two more times, so that you have commitment from three different representatives recorded and documented

You should do this with all phone companies advertising ambiguous commitments.  When you are satisfied, you can go ahead and establish a billing relationship and activate your service.

Now, even after you have established service, we have seen that the phone companies can unilaterally change the service terms without notifying you.  For these high-risk areas, it is advisable to call once per month and repeat steps 2-8 above (just once) to make sure that nothing has changed.

Circumcise the Shechemites!

The U.N. is actually recommending that adult males in Africa be circumcised, and New York City is considering the same.

This is astonishing, not only because it is wacky science, but because it is the quintessential 3,000 years-old example of wacky science.

Basically, the U.N. did the work to show that men who were circumcised as children are only half as likely to get AIDS (in Africa). Circumcision and low incidence of AIDS are correlated. But as all good students know, correlation does not equal causation. It only makes sense that there is an external third factor which accounts for a significant part of the correlation.

Any mother willing to slice her baby’s anatomy for the sake of righteousness is probably going to raise him with some hang-ups about sex. On the other hand, circumcision probably gives no significant protection to a man who was raised with no sexual hang-ups, who is so attached to his virile escapades that he is willing to undergo a painful and disfiguring operation in order to continue chasing his desires unhindered by AIDS. The U.N. has no evidence or experimental data to support the conclusion that circumcising sexually promiscuous adult males will help.  It is incomprehensible that they would be exhorting a whole continent to experiment on such flimsy premises.

But the most bewildering part is that nobody seems to notice that this story was told once before, 3,000 years ago. There are some differences, but the similarities are eerie. In the story, the Shechemites are overcome with desire and are convinced that circumcision will give them membership to the tribe; both allowing them to escape punishment for succumbing to the temptation, and giving free rein to continue in that desire. They fail to realize that circumcision is a side-effect of membership in the tribe rather than cause. When all of their adult males have mutilated themselves and are lying in pain, they are slaughtered – presumably to make way for people who are a bit smarter about the distinction between correlation and causation.

Good Money after Bad

George: We must do something! If we don’t do something, we’ll die eventually!

Nancy: Yes, if we don’t become immortal, we’ll die eventually.

George: I’m looking for the fountain of youth.

Nancy: That’s stupid.  You are always looking, abandoning your home, and you still haven’t found it.

George: You have no plan!  Your plan would have us die eventually.  At least my plan has us living forever.

Nancy: Your “stay the course” plan still hasn’t proven successful at achieving immortality.  And you’re not helping rebuild the damage here at home.

George: What use is rebuilding at home if we just die eventually?  Am I the only one with the vision to pursue the fountain of youth?

Nancy: Yes, you are.  Let us know when you find it.

I’m a liar too

Joel Spolsky demonstrates his exegetic prowess by analyzing a Gillmor missive.

Gillmor himself is (mildly) criticizing Dave Winer, who was teeing off on Mark Lucovsky.  Both are riffing on points I made in my earlier commentary on Lucovsky, so I understand where they are coming from.

Joel’s commentary is rather bizarre.  Paraphrased, he says “It took me three hours to understand Gillmor, and I am smarter than you, so I will explain Gillmor to you.  Gillmor said nothing at all.”

In actuality, he is saying “I believe that Gilmor was trying to get on Techmeme by insulting a luminary, but he did it the wrong way.  Let me impress you by showing you the right way insult a luminary and get on Techmeme.”

Joel is the undisputed expert on this topic.  His bait-and-prank of DHH was incredible.  If you are looking for a slightly mean-spirited but deliciously devious way to deflate an ego, you can find nothing better.  The perfect balance with which others were also duped is almost unbelievable (some still are confused, I’m afraid).  When the only thing for reasonable people to do is laugh, it’s a good roast.

But in this case, I’m not quite as impressed.  Since Joel phrased his roast this time as an insider joke directed to pre-mitzvahed kids with just enough scholarship to be cocky, I’ll respond within the framework.  Midrashim, like journalistic editorials, serve an important purpose.  But they bring with them some smelly problems.

  • Arrogance: CNN talking heads like to say things like “The world is confusing.  We break down the news for you real simple.”  This is patronizing and laughable.  Any time you look to a Rabbi to ‘splain to you something that was clearly etched in stone, that’s a failure on your part and a temptation on his.  Typically, the Rabbis are commenting when the original scribe is dead, so arrogance is masked or muted.  But when you are “interpreting” a breathing person who penned their text less than a week ago, without asking a single question, the arrogance is plain.  Journalists exist to speak truth to power; not to “interpret” for the rabble.
  • Context: Joel admits that it took him three hours to understand something that took me three minutes to understand.  Joel is certainly at comparable IQ level.  So this suggests that he didn’t enter the conversation with adequate context or preparation, and thus perhaps was not the intended audience to whom Gillmor was speaking.  Gillmor doesn’t link a lot, and he cites within a small circle.  So it’s safe to assume he’s writing primarily for a certain type of person.  This, too, is a well-established Midrashic concept.  Certain writings are inaccessible to people who aren’t prepared to understand them.  Some take this to mean that the best midrashist is a super genius who layers insider jokes within insider jokes and makes his momma proud with dazzling sophistry.  But as Kierkegaard explains, it’s simpler than that.  Two people faced with the same distinct life experience can draw two different lessons, and both are not necessarily equally valid.  Context and experience matter, as does the heart of the listener.  No amount of exegetical talent can erase those two factors of listener context.
  • Selfish Deceit: Joel’s case is innocuous and plain.  He admits that he doesn’t understand what Gillmor is saying, and Gillmor is alive if you want to ask him yourself.  And it’s clear that Joel has a selfish motive despite professing otherwise.  But in the broader pattern of CNN ‘splainers and Midrashim, corrosion is inevitable.  For starters, if you set up a system where rabble need priests to ‘splain, the priests stay in power due to ignorance in the rabble.  The incentive system is all wrong.  Aaron represented Moses’s failure, not a divine endorsement of the priest class.  If you must have Levites, ask yourself why, and only trust them so long as they admit “I’m a liar, too”.


In my initial commentary, I stated that many in Lucovsky’s org had been rather hostile to RSS and JavaScript, and sought to quash them and replace with legacy win32 concepts.  If he had infected Google with those same concepts, it would have been very fortuitous for Microsoft.  I cited the example of RSS only because Lucovsky had nearly attempted to claim “we knew it all along”, when that is not true.  RSS is certainly not the only example I could cite — the truth is that it’s sometimes more difficult for old orgs to learn new tricks, exactly as Gillmor says.  It’s also inspiring when you see someone like Lucovsky learning from the past rather than claiming “I was right all along, you just didn’t understand”.

Furthermore, Dave has long had suspicions about the Atom crew’s intentions for RSS; and it is absolutely true that SOAP is feeling pressure from JSON.  While Joel would have you believe that there is nothing of interest going on, John Battelle explains it clearly.  It actually has nothing to do with APIs in the final analysis — you might as well just stick Google search results in an IFRAME for all that the “API” gives you after this neutering.  It’s a perfectly good business decision for Google, trying to frame it as a “developer” feature is wishful thinking.

And really, Gillmor’s missive is just a bit of posturing among prophets.  Gillmor is saying, “Dave was probably right, but it’s not relevant anymore”.  Then he responds to McNealy’s claim that “you rabble have sold your soul to the central server!” with “it’s true, but you need to rise up and demand your attention data!”.

These are all very significant industry patterns which were predicted by people like Gillmor, Winer, and McNealy; and which were scorned by the rabble and first ignored, then attacked and finally co-opted.  Gillmor perhaps is suggesting that he’s a better prophet than Winer, since Winer hasn’t moved on to sounding the claxon about centralization.  Or perhaps he’s pointing out that McNealy is utterly surreal; to finally be proven right in defeat, and then change his story to something that is obviously wrong.  That’s the opposite pattern to what you normally see — you normally see leaders who push the lie on others, then change their story once the lie is obvious to virtually everyone and claim “I was right all along, you just misunderstood me.”

Since I’ve gone this far to “interpret”, I’ll add my own blatant opinions.  First, Dave’s warnings about XML’s complexity were right.  Most of his other warnings were right.  He has a good track record.  More people believe him (by now) than believe Gillmor.  But Gillmor is right, too.  So if you measure a prophet in how unique, non-obvious to the rabble, or scorned his vision is, Gillmor is currently winning.

On the other hand, you have to rate a prophet not only on how perceptive the prophecy, but how timely and pragmatic the warning.  Prophets are typically warning people of something.  When McNealy said “privacy is dead” and then dedicated his life to making it true, he wasn’t a prophet — he was just a businessman tracking what he felt to be inevitable.  But Gillmor is warning of something important, something people will almost certainly look back on with regret, and suggesting a way to avert disaster.  But he’s also suggesting a solution that has a high probability of being ignored, which requires a LOT of people to listen to work, and which attempts to go against nearly every industry trend in force today.  In other words, he’s setting himself up to be able to say “I was right, and you should have listened to me”.  I hope that future history will prove my doubts unfounded.