August 16, 2005

Another Comma Problem

Gore Vidal was the last author to set me off by the niggardly use of commas (see “Commas”). The latest author to do so is J. K. Rowling, who, through six volumes of Harry Potter stories has mostly been a source of endless delight. Five hundred thirteen pages into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, however, I found myself rereading this sentence:
They had one of their rare joint free periods after Charms and walked back to the common room together.
It was immediately obvious that the sentence was wrongly punctuated, but it took a few moments to discover its meaning, and therefore, its proper punctuation. In the magical world of Harry Potter, odd collections of words are sometimes juxtaposed, and knowing this fact doubtless slowed my winnowing out unacceptable interpretations.

In the latest Harry Potter novel, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are sixth-year students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and they are getting together in the Gryffindor common room during a class period for which none has a class scheduled, a situation that does not occur often. The sentence should, I think, read as follows:
They had one of their rare, joint free periods after Charms and walked back to the common room together.
As it appears in the book, the sentence might be read as if rendered as “rare, joint-free periods” (no one smoking pot) or “rare-joint-free periods” (a period free of rare joints, whatever that might mean). In context, of course, any reader would reject such interpretations but would nonetheless stand a good chance of getting well into the phrase “rare joint free periods” without a clear sense of what Rowling is getting at.

Even with the suggested punctuation, I am not completely happy with the sentence. One wants to put a comma after “joint” for additional clarity, but doing so belies how the sentence would be spoken and, in fact, its intended meaning. One would speak of “free periods” that are “rare” and “joint” (i.e., shared), not of “periods” that are “rare,” “joint,” and “free.” "Free periods” is really a compound noun modified by the two proceeding adjectives, and the phrase would be perfectly clear if written as “rare, joint free-periods,” except that “free periods” is not conventionally hyphenated. If one knows that the sentence is punctuated correctly, the reader, if paying close attention, should get the right meaning the first time if the single comma is used in the phrase. Particularly these days, however, such confidence is seldom justified.

August 3, 2005

John Bolton

Many Democrats seem—and “seem” may be exactly the right word here—upset over President Bush’s recess appointment of John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. They should get over it, stop talking about John Bolton, and worry more about John Roberts.

The recess appointment represents a minor victory for the opposition; Mr. Bush could not, in fact, get his man confirmed! The recess appointment was perfectly proper, and there is nothing the Democrats can do about it. It has been made clear to the world, however, that Bolton is the President’s choice, not that of the American people. If Bolton is as much of a bull in a China shop as many believe he is, we need only wait for confirmation that he was a poor choice for the U.N. post. The Democrats can then say “I told you so” without irony or insincerity. Isn’t that a pretty good outcome?

July 31, 2005

Finding the Right Noun

(CNN) -- NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the space shuttle's thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

Thus begins a story on today’s CNN Web site. Similar copy was read on the air, but what was said was not quite what was intended.

The shuttle's thermal tiles, rather than posing a safety hazard, are intended to protect the shuttle. When they operate properly, they do just that, allowing the craft to survive the enormous heat of re-entry into the atmosphere. The concern NASA had was not that the tiles might be a threat, but that their condition could be. Were they or were they not damaged in the ascent to orbit?

Even if Hale was imprecise in his statement—notice that he is not quoted directly—CNN should have cleaned up its lead with something like:
NASA engineers have determined that Discovery can safely return to Earth and that the condition of the space shuttle’s thermal tiles don't pose a safety hazard, deputy shuttle manager Wayne Hale said Saturday night.

July 28, 2005

Space Shuttle Design Flaw

The relief resulting from the successful launch of Space Shuttle Discovery after a 2-1/2 year re-engineering effort following the Columbia disaster has been quickly replaced by dismay. Before the shuttle even reached the International Space Station, NASA had announced that the shuttle fleet would again be grounded. Although the craft seems not to have been damaged by foam shed from the external fuel tank, design changes were unable to keep a piece of foam, estimated to weigh about a pound, from coming loose during the ascent to orbit. Clearly, NASA is beginning to worry that there may be no economic solution to the problem of foam coming loose from the big fuel tank.

The space shuttle and its launch system are increasingly beginning to seem fragile. Some of their vulnerabilities result from a major early design decision. Unlike other objects we have launched into orbit, the space shuttle sits not atop the rockets that propel it, but beside them. This tends to make propulsion system failures catastrophic (as in the case of Challenger), and it puts the vulnerable thermal tiles of the shuttle in harm’s way of insulation that breaks off the external fuel tank. If the shuttle sat on top of the rockets that propel it, rocket engine failures—even rocket explosions—might be survivable. And, of course, the shedding of foam insulation would be completely innocuous.

E-commerce at eMusic

With a recent download, I received an invitation to try the music download service eMusic. The incentive to do so was “50 free downloads,” which sounded like a lot. What did I have to lose?

I should say that I am not a regular consumer of MP3 music files. I have probably downloaded no more that a handful of songs over the years, a couple from the old Napster and Morpheus, and the rest from Web sites devoted particular artists or genres. I do own an MP3 player, but I use it more for its FM radio, for transfering files, and for recording voice or music than I do for actually playing MP3s. I am a long-time audiophile, and the notion of purchasing music in one format when it can be had in a higher-fidelity format is a hard sell.

Not surprising, my “50 free downloads” required that I sign up for a trial membership that would be converted automatically to a regular membership if I failed to cancel. I had every intention of cancelling—this sort of arrangement had cost me money in the past when I failed to pay close attention to offer details—but, since I had never used a fee-based download service, I was willing to try one. Nonetheless, when signing up, I used my American Express card—American Express is great in customer-merchant disputes—and selected the lowest-priced monthly plan for my post-trial membrship. This offered 40 downloads for $9.99.

There is much to like about eMusic. It is oriented toward albums, rather than individual songs. This suited me fine, as I am used to buying albums, not singles. One can purchase individual songs, of course, but eMusic does make it simple to download complete albums with a single click. I give the service high marks for its search capabilities, the annotations provided about albums, and its download software. I was somewhat less impressed by the music selection itself. I found few titles I actually searched for, though I had no trouble finding 50 items I wanted to download. I chose several complete albumns and half a dozen or so selections from others, mostly from the folk/country and classical categories. I was pleased that I could copy album cover art from the site and use it on the folder icons in my computer’s My Music folder.

Downloading whole albumns, it did not take long to exhaust my 50 downloads. It was now time to cancel my membership. Before doing so, however, I saw an "Upgrade" link and thought that I should review all my options first, since I didn’t recall the details of every membership level. I am used to making purchases on the Internet, so I expected to be given a set of options and several opportunities to say no before I had actually committed to a purchase. I clicked on the Upgrade link. Bad choice. I was congratulated for having purchased another month of the service, allowing me 40 additional downloads. This was an especially surprising outcome, since eMusic had missed an opportunity to sell me something more expensive. Apparently, however, the company was not going to miss an opportunity to earn something out of the deal.

I was glad I had used my American Express card, but I was hoping I would not actually have to dispute a charge. Natually, I looked for a customer service telephone number. Naturally, I didn't find one. There was a Web form for sending e-mail to eMusic, however, so I composed a complaint and request for a refund. I said, in part: “I am very angry at this aggressive piece of deceptive marketing. Please confirm that I will not be charged for another month. I WILL dispute any charge with American Express.”

The next day—kudos to eMusic here—I received a reply. It referred me to eMusic’s Terms of Use and essentially told me that I was out of luck: “Unfortunately we are not able to issue you a refund for charges incurred during your subscription.” I resisted my urge to call in American Express. Included in my reply, however, was the following: “I was charged without warning. Your Web site does not conform to standard practice of verifying the user's intention before he incurs a charge, particularly a non-refundable one. I consider this deceptive and possibly fraudulent. If you do not remove the charge within 24 hours, I will dispute the charge with American Express. It will be easier for everyone if you do the proper thing and process a refund.”

This seems to have done the trick. The next e-mail message, which arrived the next day, read, in part: “Your eMusic account associated with the email address "" is now canceled. We have issued you a refund in the amount of $9.99.” It was suggested that I check back later to reconsider subscribing. “Over the next several months, we're going to be enhancing the service with new features and new content.” The note failed to explain if the enhancements would include a more user-friendly e-commerce component.

July 7, 2005

From Yellow to Orange

Threat levels
In response to the bombings in the city of London, today, Homeland Security informed the world on its Web site as follows: “The United States government is raising the threat level from Code Yellow--or Elevated-- to Code Orange--or High--for the mass transportation portion of the transportation sector.” The CNN link to the story about the change read “US raises alert level after blasts.”

Homeland Security has consistently refered to its color-coded advisory system as specifying a “threat level,” but I had not noticed until today that this terminology represents either fuzzy thinking or deliberate manipulation by the Department of Homeland Security. I hope that, in fact, Homeland Security is raising the perceived threat level; if it is raising the actual threat level, we have a serious need to re-evaluate what this organization thinks it is supposed to be doing! No doubt, the Department would like citizens to believe that the declared “threat level” corresponds to an actual statistically meaningful measure of the current threat from terrorism. Without more information than the government will ever have, however, the “threat level” is simply a best guess of that hypothetical statistic. Homeland Security should call its colored levels “perceived threat levels” or, more reassuringly, “estimated threat levels.”

The CNN use of “alert level” seems to be a headline-writer’s mistake, at least insofar as it does not capture directly the sense of what Homeland Security said it was doing. Because each “threat level” corresponds to a detailed specification of steps to be taken by public safety organizations, however, a change, like this one from yellow to orange, does indeed (and unambiguously) elevate what could reasonably be called the “alert level.” Perhaps Homeland Security should use this term, which emphasizes something the Department does know, rather than something it doesn’t.

May 23, 2005

Nuclear Option

The Senate tonight is moving closer to invoking the “nuclear option” to circumvent the filibuster rule for judicial nominations. I sent the letter below to my two senators: Santorum (who will surely vote for the “nuclear option”) and Specter (who may have the courage to vote against it).

I believe that the two greatest political ideas contributed by the United States are the separation of church and state and a system of checks and balances. The filibuster is part of the latter. The Republican Party seems intent on diminishing both of these great ideas embodied in the Republic.

Dear Senator:

The President says that every judicial nominee has a right to an up-or-down vote in the Senate. This is not true. Nominees deserve a decision on whether the Senate consents to his or her nomination or not. (Whatever happened to the notion that the Senate also provides advice on nominations?) Anyway, a successful filibuster on a nominee amounts to a rejection by the Senate and surely fulfills any moral or constitutional obligation to the nominee, the President, or to the American people.

The filibuster rule in the United States Senates, any history notwithstanding, has no exceptions regarding the matter at issue. Any argument to the contrary is disingenuous, and I suspect that you, every Republican member of the Senate, and the Vice President of the United Sates all realize that.

The filibuster rule is not, I admit, “democratic.” It is, however, a bulwark against democracy run amuck, one of the many checks and balances built into the structure of the Republic, albeit not a check institutionalized in the Constitution.

Preserving the filibuster in its current form, and certainly for judicial nominations, is especially important because it is vital that our courts be and be seen to be impartial. Judges confirmed by 51-49 votes are likely to be people who will compromise that appearance and, likely, that reality. Should the next Supreme Court justice be confirmed by such a close and partisan vote, it will, I believe, be a step toward the destruction of the American experiment that, for more than 200 years, has been such a shining light to the world.

For me, your vote for the “nuclear option” will be a legislative sin that I can never forgive. Should you vote to support the cynically improper scheme for approving the President’s judicial nominations hatched by the Vice President and the Senate leadership, I will forever hold you and your party responsible for a wanton blow to the Republic more devastating than any a mere terrorist might inflict.

May your conscience overrule your party loyalty on this issue.

Lionel Deimel

January 4, 2005

Charitable Diversion?

Yesterday, President Bush announced that predecessors Clinton and Bush would head an effort to raise private funds for tsunami relief in southeast Asia. The three presidents, their entourage, and the press then visited four embassies of southeast Asia nations to express America’s sympathy for the recent natural disaster. This has all been reported matter-of-factly in the press. Am I the only cynic who sees in these actions more blatant self-interest than humanitarian sensitivity?

President Bush had a couple of problems. He had been criticized by former President Clinton, among others, for offering little funding for the tsunami relief effort and for being slow even to do that. (One is reminded of the bewildered Bush reading with a group of toddlers for several minutes after he had learned about the 9/11 attacks on the United States.) Even after the President had increased the U.S. pledge to $350 million, we still found ourselves playing second fiddle to a generous Japan. Bush may well be benevolent by nature, but he faces massive Federal deficits that will be exacerbated by the developing quagmire that is the Iraq war, as well as by the Income Tax and Social Security giveaways that seem even closer to his heart. Spending more billions in southeast Asia wouldn’t help.

The solution, of course, was to pass the buck to the private sector, thereby getting credit for what the American people would do, while keeping the cost off-budget. It is not clear why President Clinton signed on to this project, though perhaps he thought that doing so would enhance his own reputation for selflessness. The American people, even without nagging from past or present presidents, are showing their usual generosity in the wake of the tragedy, and it is not clear that the Clinton-Bush effort will raise substantially more money than would have been raised anyway by existing relief organizations.

As for a gaggle of presidents, advisors, reporters, and photographers invading one’s embassy for a photo op, what ambassador wants that? Wouldn’t a private, personal telephone call from the President communicate more genuine human concern? Such a call could even have been mentioned in a White House press release. Of course, it would have produced no footage on the evening news.