Got Milk?

Have no fear, dairy fans, Laura Sydell is still on the job!  Indeed, she’s all over the whole milk-detecting “smart refrigerator” thing like Judy Miller on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.  Her bio on Twitter says she’s interested in “looking at the intersection of culture and technology.”  Who knew she meant “milk culture”?

The only problem is that her Vitamin-D fortified monomania may be blinding her to the larger world of technology.  Have you ever heard the old saw that “if your only tool is a hammer then everything looks like a nail?”  Evidently every technological advance is, to Sydell, just another inevitable step on the many-streamered path to our glorious smart-fridge future.

The opportunity arising from the opening up of new wireless spectrum for digital devices?  Milk-detecting smart fridge!

Coolest thing she might find at the 2011 consumer electronics show?  Duh!  Milk-detecting smart fridge, obviously!

She is giving this gallons of coverage. She tweets “Getting ready 2 talk about CES on ATC. So far what interests me most is internet connected appliances:refrigerator, washing machine.”  In that  two-way on ATC she brings up the whole milk thing right at the beginning to make sure it isn’t edited out for time.  Additionally she writes in the synopsis/blog-post that accompanies the audio for this on the ATC website yesterday that “I want my fridge to tell me when I’m out of milk, but,” she adds moovingly, “I don’t know if we are there just yet…”

Courage, Laura!  Don’t be a milquetoast!

Listen, I’m as interested in the status of my domestic milk supply as the next blogger, maybe even more than some (looking at you, veganlife.blogspot.com…), but if you think about it for a couple of seconds you’ll realize that this 2% solution to our admittedly nightmarish collective ignorance of our own milk quantities is probably not all it’s cracked up to be, even in theory.  What if the smart fridge knows we have gallons of milk but doesn’t know it’s all gone horribly off?  What if we have to constantly monitor and recalibrate the accuracy of the M.I.L.K.?  (Milk Indicator Level from Kitchenaid)  What if the fridge is ignorant of some sort of catastrophically unanticipated increase in our milk requirements, like providing enough nog for the NPR Arts Information Unit staff holiday party?  And this is not to mention the privacy issues.  What if the Department of Social Services learns about our failure to keep our child’s bones strong through maintenance of an adequate dairy supply?

As fascinating as the topic is, one has to wonder why Sydell keeps milking it.  Is there a sour note here?  Does she have some udder motivation to constantly call our attention to the national tragedy of our milk ignorance?  Your humble blogger has discovered there exists not only a “Sydell” brand goat-milking stand, but also a “Sydell Spa” brand milk-based facial cleanser.  Coincidences?  You, dear reader, or better yet the NPR ombudsperson, can make that call.  (Memo to FOX News: get Juan Williams on this, please!  What else does he have to do?  Oh wait, I forgot, FOX News doesn’t do actual journalism.)

I suppose it could be personal.  Does Laura live several hours from the nearest milk provisioner?  Is she exhausted from wasting entire days when she returns home for a nice virgin White Russian only to find that the fiendishly opaque milk carton, when hurriedly opened with that funny little cap they all have now, reveals nothing but her hopes and dreams?  Everyone knows you can’t drink those, unless you are newly-appointed house speaker John Boehner.

Or perhaps this is the consumer technology equivalent of what Reagan termed the “soft-serve bigotry” of lowfat expectations.  How can any careful observer not be disappointed by the state of consumer technology?  I, too, am cowed by the fact that here we are in 2011 and we still have no warp drives, no teleportation, no clean and infinite fusion power, pretty much nothing we were promised by the imagineers of the greatest generation 50 years ago.  (Except, of course, that stupid Facebook game that Isaac Asimov predicted in his speculative novel “I, Time-Wasting Fake Farmer” in 1947.)

Maybe, just maybe, if we can do this one stupid thing, if we can just have a refrigerator that can put a cussing update on our cussing Facebook wall to tell us how much cuss-damned milk we have, maybe we can, as President Kennedy promised in his stirring oration announcing the Apollo program, “do the other things” too.  Was it Browning who said “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

Alright, dammit,  I’m on board!  I’ve talked myself into it!  From this day forward I hereby dare to believe that one day, in some shining Sydellian Utopia, we’ll even have a fridge that can tell us when it’s time to buy more Half and Half.

Good luck in Vegas, Laura!  Those of us who dive for dreams are counting on you!

Hagerty Inanity Ubiquity

This I believe.

I believe Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a shill for religion and shouldn’t be a reporter in the legitimate news media.

The public radio echo chamber is unbearably loud this week with vapid discussions of NPR religious correspondent Hagerty’s new book “The Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality.”  Incredibly, they’re giving her a five part series that amounts, of course, to a national book-tour of inestimable value.  Maybe NPR’s got a piece of the book sales proceeds, or maybe they’re so accustomed to lavishing attention on every page ejected from Cokie Robert’s laser printer their brains have changed and they don’t realize this is inappropriate.

Meanwhile she appeared today for an hour on Diane Rehm (further expanding Diane’s reputation for gullibility I’m afraid).  I’m guessing these aren’t the last.

Hagerty is a sometimes-admitted supposedly former Christian Scientist, which is sickeningly appropriate given the book’s title.  Although she has many connections with more fundamentalist people and organizations (brilliantly exposed by Better Angels and Eschaton), she soft pedals it here suspiciously in line with the latest gratuitous anti-atheist pushback from the likes of Terry Eagleton and Stanley Fish.

The theist argument can be split into two questions, “is there a god?” and “if there is a god, what things must follow from that fact?”  The second question is much harder because you have to start making a lot of extremely questionable truth claims about things like the age of the universe, virgin births, Roe vs. Wade, and, of course, whether zippers are okay.

The easy road is to start with the whole divine existence question.  You have to appear to approach it very timidly and humbly.  The tricky part is to first define god with such sweeping generality that the definition conflicts with no faith.  It’s “something larger than ourselves”, a “spiritual feeling”, or (straight from the book) “the unearthly wine of transcendence”.  Then you interview some scientists and ask them unanswerable leading questions like (again from the book) “When people pray, do they connect to God or tap into a dimension outside of their bodies?”

When you ask a question like that a lot of scientists will try to avoid seeming arrogant or hurting your feelings.  Often they are religious themselves.  So they’ll respond as the scientist in the book did :

Even if I do a brain scan of somebody who tells me that they’ve seen God, that scan only tells me what their brain was doing when they had that experience, and it doesn’t tell me whether or not they actually did see God.

Then you come to the safe conclusion, as Hagerty does in her book and on the air, that belief in this extremely nonspecific God has the same validity as non belief, that it’s all just a matter of opinion and everybody is equal and everybody wins.

Never mind the fact that this conclusion is nothing more than a hazy tautology, that making this statement after putting a bunch of people in fMRIs is no different than making the statement without the fMRIs.  Never mind the fact that this sloppy sentiment contributes not one iota to the eons old debate about god.

The real problem is that Hagerty has, quite intentionally,  just made it easier for dogmatists of all stripes to peddle their pernicious claims.

Lawn Darts 2: The Revenge

So is NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn’s official “beat” stupidity?

The poor guy seems to be stationed in Texas where the stupidity, of course, grows bigger than it does in other states. As a result he encounters more of it than the average NPR flatfoot. His coverage of the giant UFO witnessed by the future Sarah Palin voters of Stephenville, TX is a case in point.

But today’s entry, hyping the terrifying threat posed by a small, well-intentioned foldable soccer goal for children, sets some kind of record for unintentional self-parody. The plaything is earnestly described as a “deadly toy that lurks in thousands of backyards.”

Renee Montagne made this introduction, right out of a local network news teaser:

“Families with young children and toddlers should pay attention to this next story…one child has already died.”

They buried the lede. I think it’s more sensible to say “out of 200,000 of these soccer goals, only one deadly incident has occurred.” It wouldn’t surprise me if sock puppets have a higher fatality rate.

I don’t want to diminish the truly horrific (and too gruesomely described in the report) tragedy of the single child killed through interaction with this unstoppable playground death machine, but let’s be serious. Even irresponsible lifestyle journalists require three data-points to make a trend.

Is this toy really the most dangerous thing to be found around the average home? (After studying this useful Daily Show item I was convinced the worst offender was gravity.) Is it in the top hundred potentially deadly items? Frankly Sarah Palin’s gubernatorial tanning bed seems more perilous, yet even her notorious litter of slack-brained Ewells managed to survive its proximity pretty much intact. (Or at least that’s what they tell the press…maybe the inevitable Palin-aimed October surprise will reveal some kind of tanning bed/conjoined twin shocker.)

You’d certainly never know this from the panic-stricken tone of the report. Parents are told to remove the nets “immediately,” as if their ultra-supervised 21st century children are, at this very moment, in the act of improvising an explosive device from the thing and detonating it near an arms depot. By the time the piece was over I had an image in my head of the Omaha Beach sequences from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.

The story does try to draw some larger conclusions from this wet firecracker of a news item:

  • The Bush administration is irresponsibly laissez faire in pretty much everything it does, product safety included.
  • Companies making toys in China are dangerously focused on price over all other considerations
  • Sarah Palin is an uneducated frontier beauty contest loser who can’t manage the executive branch of her own family

While all of these points are axiomatically true, this report is too fundamentally weak in premise to prove them.

Hey, wait a minute! Sarah Palin wasn’t even mentioned in the original Morning Edition story! She’s taken over this blog post the same way she took over the Republican presidential campaign!! That’s so devious!

Just how senical (senile + cynical) are they?

Necrophiliac Public Radio

Ghouls, those vile creatures of myth who make graveyards their home and feast on the dead, can’t compare to journalists in the area of necrophilia. It’s unseemly.

Yes, it’s important to know that Ted Kennedy has a very serious illness. Perhaps, because he is a senator during a time of frequent close votes, it’s even valuable to know something of his prognosis. But the news media treats this sort of situation as an occasion to obsess and, worse, speculate about symptoms, treatments and anything else they can think of to drag out the coverage. It’s as if the moment someone with any fame becomes ill or dies the entire world has the same right and obligation to know every gruesome detail as consulting physicians or anguished members of the patient’s immediate family.

Today NPR spent many more minutes on what should be private details of Kennedy’s disease than on the situation’s actual political consequences. And, if that weren’t enough, Carl Kasel’s news update during Morning Edition about Hamilton Jordan’s death told many details about his years fighting illness to the exclusion of all other information. Was that really the right focus? The update should obviously have focused instead on what made him a public figure, not his personal medical history.

I first started noticing the extremity of this instinct on the part of the news media in general and NPR in particular with the death of a somewhat famous classical musician last year. I say “somewhat” because, while a large number of classical music fans knew of his talent, few others did. Yet every twenty minutes we received a detailed description of his lengthy battle with illness. Why is it necessary for people who have barely or never heard of this man to be privy to the saddest and grimmest details of his end?

Whatever happened to “natural causes?” Is that seen as some kind of journalistic failure? I presume so given the disappointment and humiliation I often detect in the voices of newsreaders forced to report that posthumous details aren’t available.

This practice is odder still in a country so paranoid about the privacy of individual health records. After all, one of the roadblocks to a national health ID card connected to a computerized patient record system is fear of loss of privacy. We’re so concerned about our health records that even our doctors have a hard time getting them and often have to employ paper filing systems from the 19th century. Yet the news media shouts detailed health information like a gossipy aunt to anyone who’ll listen every single time someone of fame dies or becomes ill – and the very same society acts like it’s normal, even required behavior.

This bad habit plagues public radio interview shows as much as it does magazine and news shows. Diane Rehm demonstrates a particular fascination with the diseases of her guests, the more horrifying the better. I’ve heard her force actors who are just trying to promote a movie to discuss their traumatic health problems at great length. At least she holds the same standard for herself. But is it really necessary that we be informed every time she’s on leave for her voice treatments and not a vacation? And if she must tell us, shouldn’t we have some input in designing her treatment plan? Why not?

I realize that the gruesome and gory have always been mainstays of journalism, but the more ingrained a practice is in a field of endeavor the more it’s usually overdue for scrutiny.

I challenge all NPR producers to reconsider how much medical detail is really necessary and appropriate for broadcast.

Since that clearly won’t happen, I also challenge Bob Garfield or Brooke Gladstone of On The Media to address this issue directly.

Weekend low point

Filed under “Too many things considered” is the Sunday All Things Considered story on brothers John and Hank Green. These two snooze-inducers “realized their relationship had become nothing more than a series of text messages and e-mails” so “they began posting video blogs for each other on YouTube.”

What’s wrong with this story? Where do I begin:

The entire premise makes an enormous but common category error. NPR unthinkingly buys the dumb idea that exchanging recorded, non-interactive video clips is new and that its newness makes it uniquely qualified to help these text-message-addled brothers re-connect. Well, I have another technology they should learn about that’s even more amazing. It’s called the telemaphone machine, or something newfangled like that, and I hear tell that you can actually say something into it and have a person on the other end respond immediately! Then you talk again and then they do! Imagine the revolution we’ll now be able to have! No more of those awful, stilted, waaaaay too much information one-way YouTube video clips. Soon you’ll be able to actually ask the person you are talking to about the things you are interested in in the order you want to hear about them instead of having them describe their trip to the grocery store! And, no tedious, painstaking editing and uploading of video clips! You just talk! What a future!

[editor’s note: I was way too harsh on the content of these guys’ videos and their viewers based on my understanding of them from the story. After actually watching some of them I took out that paragraph.]

As a blogger I often get this creepy feeling that one day everyone will have a blog. They won’t have time to read anyone else’s, just narcissistically manage their own little garden of superficia and knit rhetorical cozies in which to store their quotidia.

This will make the blogosphere about as useful as a map of the United States that is EXACTLY THE SAME SIZE AS THE ACTUAL UNITED STATES.

1:1 Scale adds nothing and is really hard to fit in the glove compartment.