The song remains the same

David Brooks has addressed himself to the subject of rock music, and as you'd expect it's a total Rothgasm.

Brooks's problem is that rock is no longer a monolithic entity centered on megastars like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, or Bruce Springsteen, because "there are now dozens of niche musical genres where there used to be this thing called rock." In making his case, Brooks pulls off a pretty incredible rhetorical trick. Watch as he explains the fragmentation of the pop-music audience:

Music industry executives can use market research to divide consumers into narrower and narrower slices... And there’s the rise of the mass educated class. People who have built up cultural capital and pride themselves on their superior discernment are naturally going to cultivate ever more obscure musical tastes. I’m not sure they enjoy music more than the throngs who sat around listening to Led Zeppelin, but they can certainly feel more individualistic and special.
In other words, the fact that people are listening to a variety of different musicians and genres indicates that they are both (a) sheep who have been brainwashed by "music industry executives," and (b) posers eager to show off their specialness. Whereas back when everyone was grooving on Led Zep together, they were all free-choosing individuals, immune to marketing and peer pressure. Yes, that makes sense.

Brooks trots out Steven Van Zandt to bolster his credibility, but Van Zandt doesn't seem very interested in Brooks's fragmentation narrative. He makes a different argument: the familiar "today's music sucks in comparison to the music that was popular during the years when I was fourteen through twenty-two, which happened to be the greatest music ever made" argument.

Van Zandt "argues that if the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn't be able to get mass airtime because there is no broadcast vehicle for all-purpose rock." This is a bit like saying that if World War II were fought today it would be over in five minutes because the Germans would be on the same side as the British and the Americans. If the Rolling Stones came along now, they wouldn't be able to get mass airtime because everyone would think they were ripping off the Rolling Stones.

Hilariously, Van Zandt has
drawn up a high school music curriculum that tells American history through music. It would introduce students to Muddy Waters, the Mississippi Sheiks, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers. He’s trying to use music to motivate and engage students, but most of all, he is trying to establish a canon, a common tradition that reminds students that they are inheritors of a long conversation.
Good idea, Miami Steve -- let's sit the kids down in the classroom together, the ones who listen to Justin Timberlake and the ones who listen to Radiohead, the ones who like Lil Wayne and the ones who like the Get-Up Kids, the one who's into Ornette Coleman and the one who's into Deicide and the one who just borrowed her parents' Dylan tapes, and let's explain to them that they should all start listening to the Allman Brothers, because they are the inheritors of a long conversation that culminates with bearded white men making their guitars go hoodly-hoodly-hooooo! I bet that'll work real well.


P. Z. Myers on this week's stem-cell breakthrough:

Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It's going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful....

We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It's going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we'll be able to do that, it isn't going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.

Or we can just sit back and let the Japanese and Europeans and Koreans do it for us, which is OK, I suppose. Just keep in mind that ceding the research to others means giving them a head start on the development of all the subsequent breakthroughs, too, and that what we're doing is willingly consigning U.S. research in one of the most promising biomedical research fields ever to an also-ran, secondary status.


Can you spot the item that doesn't belong in this series?

And with Hillary's presidential bid, Condi as secretary of state, and an updated ass-kicking Bionic Woman on the air waves, one cannot say we are experiencing a "silencing of women's voices."


Headlines that might at first seem to come from the Onion, but in fact come from the Daily Telegraph: "Surfer dude stuns physicists with theory of everything."


Aww, thanks! Howard Dean thinks Jews can go to Heaven. (He's wrong, of course, but we appreciate the sentiment.)


Maureen Dowd has been punting a lot lately. Today she turns her column over to Saturday Night Live head writer Seth Meyers to do gags about the TV writers' strike. But there's something off about this bit:

As a comedy writer, I am more than willing to admit that I need a world with producers, but do they need us? The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, without writers whom will the studios blame for their failures? Second, seriously, whom?
Does anyone else detect the heavy hand of the Times copy desk here? Or did Meyers really land the joke on whom rather than who?


You heard it here first: RoBros, 11/1/07; NYT, 11/11/07.


Predictable: Type "onion" into Google, and the first result is The Onion.
Less predictable: Type "the" into Google, and the first result is also The Onion.

[Via AlterNet]


Least comforting assertion of the day: From David Brooks's NYT column:

The Bush administration is not about to bomb Iran (trust me).


If you skipped Anthony Lewis's NYT Book Review essay on two recent Bush books, good call -- Lewis is clearly one of those old guys who can no longer identify what counts as common knowledge. (Random cliché sampling: "The one clear winner from the invasion and the consequent civil strife has been neighboring Iran ... Bush seems to lack the intellectual curiosity that makes for an interesting mind ... there is another, less attractive part of the Bush persona: the mean-minded frat boy ... what I think will be seen, along with the Iraq war, as the most important legacy of Bush’s presidency: his effort to enlarge the unilateral power of the president.")

Lewis wraps up this bloviation with a conclusion that's off-base on two counts. He writes:

There is a profound oddity in the position of the presidentialists like Yoo, Cheney and Addington. Legal conservatives like to say that the Constitution should be read according to its original intent. But if there is anything clear about the intentions of the framers, it is that they did not intend to create an executive with more prerogative power than George III had.
I'm not sure this "oddity" really exists. First of all, the statement "legal conservatives like to say that the Constitution should be read according to its original intent" is almost exactly wrong. The poster boy for originalism, Antonin Scalia, in his "Theory of Constitutional Interpretation" speech, said this:
You will never hear me refer to original intent, because as I say I am first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don't care about the intent, and I don't care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words.
But even if Lewis had accurately represented the views of conservative originalists, that wouldn't mean that executive-branch-supremacists like Dick Cheney and David Addington were hypocrites. As far as I know, neither is specifically associated with constitutional originalism. (John Yoo is a slightly more complex case.) Some conservatives believe in being faithful to the constitution. Some believe in letting the president do whatever the hell he wants at all times. This is not a "profound oddity"; it's an easily observable fact.

Am I wrong about this? People who actually know something about the law, please let me know.

How can it be wrong when it feels so right?

Now available for the Wii: the legendary sequel to Super Mario Bros., never before released outside of Japan. A Nintendo spokesman once suggested that Shigeru Miyamoto might have been depressed when he created it, a claim also made about Shakespeare at the time of King Lear. Chris Suellentrop in Slate:

Again and again, the game uses your familiarity with Super Mario Bros. to subvert the playing experience.... In most games, you trust that the designer is guiding you, through the usual signposts and landmarks, in the direction that you ought to go. In the Real Super Mario Bros. 2, you have no such faith. Here, Miyamoto is not God but the devil. Maybe he really was depressed while making it—I kept wanting to ask him, Why have you forsaken me?

That sadistic torment, however, is central to the game's appeal.... The Real Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't just hard—it's "difficult," like a book or a movie that initially rebuffs you but becomes rewarding as you unlock its secrets.
Or this, from a review on a gaming site:
You must stay alert, concentrated, and you absolutely have to be open to the forced evolution of your style of play. The game designers are out to screw with your head and if you keep the right attitude about you, you’ll find yourself entering a hilariously intimate unspoken conversation with them.... What the game does expertly is lull us into a platformer complacency where we’ll speed along at top clip expecting the game to provide openings and landings for our jumps. Just when you’re at your most comfortable and you’re straddling that controller and spanking its side like you own the world, it’ll slam your face into a brilliantly placed yet avoidable enemy. It shows you the aporias in your game playing philosophy that you didn’t even know existed.


"'Keyboard shortcuts are faster' is a myth" is a myth: In 1992, Tog wrote:

The test I did I did several years ago, frankly, I entered into for the express purpose of letting cursor keys win, just to prove they could in some cases be faster than the mouse. Using Microsoft Word on a Macintosh, I typed in a paragraph of text, then replaced every instance of an "e" with a vertical bar (|). The test subject's task was to replace every | with an "e." Just to make it even harder, the test subjects, when using the mouse, were forbidden to just drop the cursor to the right of the | and then use the delete key to get rid of it. Instead, they had to actually drag the mouse pointer across the one-pixel width of the character t o select it, then press the "e" key to replace it.

The average time for the cursor keys was 99.43 seconds, for the mouse, 50.22 seconds. I also asked the test subjects which method was faster, and to a person they reported that the cursor keys were much, much faster.
I have just duplicated Tog's experiment, also using Microsoft Word on a Macintosh. I used a 94-word sample and timed myself with Minuteur. Using the cursor keys took 93 seconds; using the mouse took 239 seconds.

Tog's research is at least 20 years old. It may have been relevant when keyboard shortcuts and computer users were both less advanced than they are now, but those days are gone. And yet the estimable John Gruber linked to Tog's column last week, as though it were something for contemporary users and developers to keep in mind. Someone cites it in a comments thread here. Squelch this revaunchist nonsense before it goes any further! Keyboard shortcuts work!


This probably shouldn't be as surprising as it is: A Slate intern named David Sessions is an evangelical Christian. He's written a piece criticizing David Kirkpatrick's Times Magazine cover story on the crackup of the Christian right. The "Christian left," according to Sessions, is an overhyped fringe movement that "gets more attention in the press than it does in the mainstream evangelical community," and the fact that younger Christians have other concerns beyond abortion and homosexuality doesn't mean they're poised to abandon the Republican Party. Sessions's piece is kind of depressing, obviously, but I suspect it's closer to reality than Kirkpatrick's rosy take.

It's strange how strange it seems that Slate has an intern who's an evangelical Christian.

Just read (via DF) this 1989 article by Apple human interface guru Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini. In a nut:

We’ve done a cool $50 million of R & D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:

* Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
* The stopwatch consistently proves mousing is faster than keyboarding.
This had a big impact on me. I've been a keyboard-shortcuts guy ever since my first job, where my boss would stand over my shoulder and correct me when she saw me reach for the mouse. Now the first thing I do in a new app is train myself to use the key commands, and I've created custom shortcuts in all the apps I use frequently (e.g. in Word, Command-Option-W for Word Count), and I use Quicksilver to launch apps, open files, search Google, send email, get lunch, basically everything. All of this keyboarding makes me feel very efficient. And now here's Tog himself bringing my world crashing down around me.

But when you think about it, it can't be as simple as Tog suggests. The blanket statement, "Mousing is faster than keyboarding" is, presumably, true in certain circumstances. But it can't be true always and everywhere.

I spend a lot of time writing in Word. (I know, I know, but I'm used to it.) I try to write 2,000 words a day, and although I don't always manage it I usually get close enough. Based on a random sample of my prose, that's about 10,865 characters. I enter almost every one of these 10,865 characters into a Word document using the keyboard. According to Tog I should be able to save time by finding the character in the Symbol dialogue box and clicking on it.

Maybe that's a facile example. Tog might say, "Of course, I didn't mean typing words. That's what a keyboard is for. I meant performing other actions."

So here's an example that's more on point: saving. While I'm writing my 2,000 words, I am a saving freak. I save my document reflexively. Whenever I'm not typing, I'm saving. I'm sure I take saving to a useless and neurotic extreme, but it's a harmless neurosis -- the computer can handle all that saving, and it removes a source of worry, and I never have those I just lost two hours' work things that happen to other people.

I do all this saving using the venerable Command-S. I did it just now, after typing that last sentence, autonomically: hands in the resting position, left thumb about an inch to the left (I'm left-handed), left ring finger down. Boom, saved. Not once do I think about the Command key or the S key, just as I don't think about the Shift key or the T key when I begin to type Tog.

I could, instead, use the mouse to go to the File menu's Save command, or to the Save button in the toolbar. I find it hard to believe that would be quicker, but perhaps I'm falling victim to Tog's first point and failing to accurately register the time it takes to hit Command-S. So let's abstractify a little. I can't say for sure how fast I am at hitting Command-S, but I'm definitely faster than I was when I started using a computer. I'm faster than the average computer user, just because I do it so often. Either the speed of mouse-saving is like the speed of light, and there's no way you can ever catch up with it, or at some point I'm going to be faster with the keyboard than with the mouse.

Abstractify one layer further: If a keyboard shortcut is used frequently enough, and the buttons used are convenient and memorable enough, and the mouse alternative is sufficiently complex (identify the Save button from all the buttons on the toolbar, find the cursor, land the cursor on the Save button, click, return hands to the keyboard), then the keyboard shortcut is quicker and less distracting. If I only saved once a day, and the shortcut was Control-Option-Y instead of Command-S, and Microsoft had made the Save toolbar button twice as big, and there were no other buttons next to it on the toolbar, then using the mouse would be quicker.

And what about more data-dense applications? When I'm editing audio in Pro Tools and I need to move my cursor to a particular spot, there are 44,100 possible cursor locations per second of audio and maybe five minutes of audio represented on my screen. I can try to find that spot with the mouse, using repeated clicks of the zoom button, recentering, squinting at the waveforms, then unzooming back to the original view. Or I can hit the Tab key and, using Pro Tools's Tab to Transient feature, allow the software to find the exact spot I need. Is the mouse quicker then?

Tog wrote his piece in 1989, the year the first version of Pro Tools (then known as Sound Tools, which is a better name) was released. He can't be blamed for not knowing about high-resolution audio or video editing. Still, one wonders about the $50 million worth of testing he did. Did he test on anyone who'd spent ten years hitting Command-S as often as I do?

In fact, the answer to the question Which is faster, keyboard or mouse? is not Tog's one-size-fits-all answer (the mouse, and testing proves it!), nor the answer of my old boss (the keyboard, and get your hands off that mouse!). It's For what user, attempting to accomplish what task, under what circumstances?

Update: This 2005 paper (PDF) from the International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction comes down squarely on the side of keyboard shortcuts.


Apparently no one has ever asked the Internet this, so let me be the first: are more black people skateboarding these days? Or is it just in my neighborhood?

I have posted before about Jezebel's "Write Like a Man" feature, but there's a newish episode up and it's kind of a doozy: an anonymous men's-magazine writer compares celebrity profiles in women's magazines with those in men's magazines, and argues that the mensmag ones are better because they're more meta about the total fraudulence and inadequacy of the celebrity-profile form. From the nutgraf, which comes almost exactly halfway through:

The modern mensmag celeb profile is actually a surprisingly prayerful, if superficial, blend of braggadocio and dogged practice.... The work of writing about celebrity is not real work. It's a break from the real work. It is The Writer's Time To Jizz -- a way to keep that writerly muscle loose and limber and tuned up for the next Big Plunge ... for that 14,000-word hillock of ASME-judge porn that all of us contract heroes have got sitting on our laptops. (Many of which, if we're being truthful, are nowhere near as playful or, in a weird way, honest as our best celeb pieces.) ... Each celeb profile becomes a little underdog story, an uplifting tale of a ragtag writer saddled with a task that Nobody Thought He Could Ever Pull Off: Can he spin a few hours' worth of smalltalk and smiles into a revolution?
There's 2,300 words of this stuff, with detailed examples from both sides of the fence. The next time someone claims that the Gawker Empire does nothing but cookie-cutter snark, point them here.