04 April 2013

Not Gonna Study Studyin' No More

Before heading off to LaLaLand, so that the baby seal population around here can recover a bit:

  • Bill Gates makes an important point about education when he decries measurement of everything in K–12 education. He's absolutely right, of course, but he doesn't do a good job of explaining why other than "it looks ridiculous and produces bad results." There is, instead, a fundamental scientific reason to eschew the measurement of everything that can be measured: It confuses precision with accuracy (and ignores replicability, but that's for another time). Consider one of the classic freshman physics labs for a moment: Pendulum velocity and dynamics. One does not get more-meaningful (or replicable, for that matter) results using a laser-actuated electronic stopwatch with six decimal places of readout past the decimal point than one does with a simple tenth-of-a-second or hundredth-of-a-second handheld stopwatch. The twofold solution is (a) repeated trials (that replicability problem again... and what it says about the law-school exam process, let alone the bar exam, should be obvious) and (b) recognition that the lower precision of some standards used will eliminate the meaningfulness of excessive measure precision — in particular, if one is using only the three digits of the most-commonly expressed gravitational constant on Earth at sea level (9.81ms-2), having more than three digits of precision in the other data is not going to be meaningful.

    The fundamental flaw in Gates's piece is that he is focused on the quality of the measurements as inherently reflecting the quality of the measurers, without engaging with the abysmally low standards in place for the measurers themselves. If we don't expect much achievement of teachers, we're not going to get much achievement from their students; if we want more scholars and great thinkers coming out of our schools, we need to put a few more into them, if only as role models (and so that freshman English students don't have a better grasp of the subjunctive than do their Ed.D.-bearing teachers, to mention one problem I've encountered... more than once).

  • The NYRB gushes over the prospective opening of the so-called Digital Public Library of America without ever engaging with the elephant(s) in the room: The rights of the authors whose works have been (largely involuntarily, and definitely without compensation) digitized to form the core of the collection. There is a fundamental difference between information and expression... but there's not one word in Mr Darnton's puff piece that comes even close to acknowledging it. I'm all for libraries; I'm all for information and research. I'm also all for compensating the actual creators of original expression. Sometimes there's some tension there (much less often than the publishing industry would have one believe, but that's a different issue). When there is tension, I come down on the side of the authors, despite my support of the public-library concept: Without the authors, there isn't anything — or, at least, there isn't any dissent — in the libraries in the first place.
  • Which leads directly in to the Harlequin decision by Judge Baer, throwing out a particularly ill-conceived-on-these-facts lawsuit claiming that Harlequin's use of intracorporate-subsidiary transfers to limit e-rights payments breached the authors' contracts. The decision (sorry, I haven't been able to find the text without having to pierce a paywall — and the contrast with that preceding item is pretty stark and very telling) somewhat glosses over the effect of the various unique foreign-ownership regimes in question — Swiss law, in particular, is notoriously formalistic and anti-veil-piercing, and by itself may (I don't know, I only suspect) have required this result — and definitely presumes that the reader understands something that is not specifically stated in the opinion: That these are, under the law of the State of New York, contracts negotiated at arms' length between sophisticated businesses that fully understood each others' business models, and that therefore the standard for proving a material breach is quite high. I'm not criticizing Judge Baer here; I'm criticizing the law, with its assumption that there are never any unfair aspects of a business deal when the law declares that the two sides in the deal are equal. Neither am I necessarily criticizing counsel here, because the facts to establish a better complaint probably were not available to them within the statute of limitations. If there is criticism to be had, it is of Ed Meese for gutting the antitrust laws — and preventing development of law of monopsony, as opposed to monopoly — that would have been relevant here.

    The key point is this: Unlike what the General Counsel of a Big Five publisher claimed in a letter yesterday, the Harlequin decision is not precedent that demonstrates that what any publishing company does in passing rights around to its different divisions is permissible. It is not even a precedent regarding the particular corporate games at that conglomerate... because that conglomerate does not have a Swiss-control pass-through, and would be prevented from obtaining one by the particular corporate organization of its ultimate parent. And the contract terms in question, but that's for another time.

  • "Johnson" makes the overwhelmingly persuasive case for replacing French with Spanish as an official international-relations language. Leaving aside the justice (and schadenfreude) of knocking French linguistic arrogance back a few pegs, there's a psychological reason, too: Most native Francophones outside of France, Switzerland, and Canada are from nations that revolted against France and colonialism in the past century; that's simply not true for Spanish.
  • Last, but not least: If anyone needed further demonstration that the Hugo Award nomination process is broken and beyond repair, one just needs to look at this year's ongoing fiasco. (None of which is to criticize the nominees, who aren't part of the fiasco and are due congratulations.) I strongly suspect that the World Science Fiction Society and its hierarchy of SMOFs-without-whose-approval-nothing-can-be-done wants to be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; if so, it's well on its way to making the Hugos just as valid and reputable an indicator of quality as are the Oscars (exhibit A: 1979, in which the Academy managed to be objectively wrong, in both nominations and "winners" from among the nominated, in all six major-award categories). I'd pronounce a pox on all of them, but then someone would come along and claim that by using archaic language I'm somehow supporting an Austenian model for fiction (I'm not) or that by comparing it to a disease I'm suggesting that we should just cure the disease using handwaving in a hypothetical lab (I'm not) or that by referencing a sexual-misconduct-charged disease I'm suggesting a particular position in the gender/orientation "wars" (I'm not). Instead, I would impose Dorian Grey's portrait on all of them... and require its display: The hidden (and not-so-hidden) agendas of most of these combatants deserve nothing less.

    Repeat after me: The work is not the author, else Ezra Pound disappears from the canon... and so, for that matter, might Shakespeare. The battle should not be over whether LMB or RAH is more "deserving" of having the most rocketships on their respective mantels (aside: to my taste, and in most instances objectively, the majority of the winning works from both of those authors did not/do not "deserve" the corresponding Hugos), but over the most-deserving work. Fandom, too damned often, fails to look one bloody millimeter beyond "traditional"/"fen-friendly" sourcesnot one of those works was even nominated, and none of them was exactly obscurely published... yet all are objectively and substantially superior to the works that did win for the respective eligibility periods.