Three Moby Dicks of the Internet Age

A couple of years ago, I developed a fascination with Moby Dick, thanks to three creative versions of the book that couldn’t have existed without the Internet. What I knew about the novel before then was just what you learn from American pop culture – white whale, Call me Ishmael, obsessed one-legged captain, etc. And I’d seen the Gregory Peck movie in a hotel room twentysomething years ago. But that was it – the book loomed as an edifice I had no interest in climbing.

The novel had not been in my consciousness for many years, when I saw the debut article from Clickhole go by in my Twitter feed. Seeing the headline “The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World” made me think “They didn’t, did they?” And, sure enough, they did:

The Time I Spent On A Commercial Whaling Ship Totally Changed My Perspective On The World

This clickbait article is the entire text of the novel. For whatever reason, perhaps just because I found the idea so funny, I started reading it. And what I discovered was an approachable, entertaining voice that I enjoyed. The book moved to the “read this one day” category. (Alas, that day never comes for many books.)

A while later, I was working on an emoji-related project. (These things happen at Google.) After we launched, I was looking for gifts for the team and I came across Emoji Dick; or 🐳. Emoji Dick is a crowdsourced and Kickstarter-funded translation of the novel into, well, emoji. For example, the famous first line is rendered as “☎️👨🏻⛵️🐳👌.” You can argue with the translations – and good luck to anyone trying to read the book in emoji only – but it’s an impressive effort. And I thought that the book, along with some pillows, would be the perfect way to say thank you to the team:

Emoji pillows and copies of Emoji Dick

Around the same time, I came across a mention of the Moby Dick Big Read, a 2011 podcast of all 136 chapters of Moby Dick. Each chapter is read by a different actor, writer, or scholar and each is accompanied by a piece of art from a different artist, all made available for free. So I started listening. And I was hooked.

The individual readers vary a lot in quality, but the best give riveting performances. I’d like to call out four of my favorites:

Tilda Swinton’s Loomings, (Chapter 1) immediately drew me in. Her voice is haunting and philosophical, almost eternal, and the egotism of Ishmael is right at the surface.

Simon Callow gives The Sermon (Chapter 9) as a thundering, fire and brimstone sermon.

John Cleave reads The Quarter-Deck (Chapter 36), where we first meet Ahab and the s**t gets real. Both the text and the reading are absolutely gripping.

And Will Self reads The Whiteness of the Whale (Chapter 42) with wide open vowels that seem to harken back from across the centuries.

The Moby Dick Big Read is a truly wonderful contribution to the world; if you’re looking for a long-but-compelling audiobook, I highly recommend it. And, of course, Moby Dick really is a book of astounding depth and humor. Describing it as “The Great American Novel” seems entirely deserved.

While none of these homages to Moby Dick could have existed without the internet, they also couldn’t have existed if Moby Dick were still in copyright. The public domain is a valuable space, called out by the US Constitution’s limitation of copyright and patent to “limited times.” Yet copyright has not expired on any works in the US since 1978, meaning that while remix culture can play with Moby Dick, works like The Great Gatsby or 1984 remain mostly out of bounds.

Though I’ve now listened to Moby Dick, I still haven’t read it. I want a little more time to pass since listening to the Big Read before I take that on. Maybe this year, maybe next, I’ll buy a nice hardbound edition and read the actual book. I’m looking forward to it.

Thanks to Fred Benenson for Emoji Dick, Angela Cockayne and Philip Hoare for the Big Read, and whichever unnamed prankster at Clickhole came up with the idea of turning Moby Dick into clickbait. And, of course, to Herman Melville. You’ve all given me much pleasure.

On Presidents’ Day, Appreciating Barack Obama

No other President – no other politician – in my lifetime has meant as much to me as Barack Obama. While I think policy is important and I agreed wholeheartedly with his agenda, it is more than that. And while, as Kevin Drum writes, Obama was very effective in office, being pleased with what what he accomplished is not a sufficient reason either. Nor is the historic nature of his presidency.

Part of my connection to Obama is simply part of being the same generation – I could identify with him in a way I haven’t with many other politicians. But, in the end, it comes from respecting his approach and style. Obama’s ability to be the responsible adult, to approach the world rationally, to deal with crises without overreaction, and to treat the public intelligently is what I want in a civic leader. He’s the first President I’ve known that made me think “I want to act like him.”

The anger and hatred Obama generated in parts of America (and very few other places in the world) still astonishes, enrages, and saddens me. I realize that roughly half of America opposes modern liberalism, but the personal vitriol against a leader who was so smart and dignified in office will go down in history as a huge mistake, a resurgence of the worst of America.

I’m not beyond acknowledging Obama’s flaws. Primarily among them for me was his separation from the rest of the political system. That’s not an issue of his avoiding glad-handing on the Washington circuit, but his inability to bring electoral victories for his party when he was not on the ballot. A more successful version of Obama would have left a much stronger party behind. Yes, that blames the Democrats’ deficiencies on Obama, but an effective party leader can build a deep bench and Obama did not do that.

On Presidents’ Day, I need to acknowledge how much Obama and his presidency have meant to me. I do not expect to find a politician who I can feel that way about again, simply because it is so unlikely for another successful politician to bring together the same set of skills. But this was a special eight years, an era of optimism and promise.

“Thank you, Barack Obama.”

The Election

I’m still reeling from the election of Donald Trump. I’m saddened, disillusioned, angry, and, most of all, scared. I don’t think it will lead to direct harm for me or my family, at least immediately, but I fear for America and the world. That sounds like hyperbole, but elections have consequences and this one looks all bad to me.

It’s hard to draw too many big conclusions from such a close election – especially one so close that popular vote likely disagreed with the electoral college – but there are two which come to mind.

First, the divisions in this country – between urban and rural, between feminism and traditional views of women, between the embrace and rejection of diversity – are both starker and more evenly balanced than I had ever thought. That I can’t imagine anyone actually thinking Trump would be a good President shows how far on one side of the divide I am. Of course, the country has been very divided before, but the worst previous period of division, the Civil War, is not a hopeful example of healing. (That today’s fault lines still largely follow those of the Civil War is not surprising.)

Second, celebrity and charisma are probably more important than political scientists have ever acknowledged. Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger were harbingers of the power of celebrity in elections – and, of course, Ronald Reagan started his career with his celebrity, before working his way up. But Trump’s rapid rise from a TV show to President-elect shows how powerful celebrity can be.

Charisma and celebrity are tightly intertwined. I don’t see Trump’s charisma. Every video of his rallies made me wince; I saw narcissism, vacuous promises, and incitement of hatred. But anyone who can carry a successful TV show for a decade clearly is attractive to a large number of people. And his rallies inspired throngs. It may be the charisma of a demagogue, but it is charisma.

Thinking about presidential elections, you probably have to go back to 1972 to find one where the less charismatic candidate won. The political scientists and insiders who believed that policy matters, that money matters, that Get Out The Vote matters, that endorsements matter were wrong, at least in a presidential election. At most, those can be proxies. Emotional connection to a large group of voters matters; charisma may be the most direct way for that to happen.

In the days leading up to the election, I was a mixture of complacent and panicked. I thought the complacency was rational, given both the polling and my belief that voters couldn’t really fall for Trump, and the panic was irrational, based more on the fear of a Trump presidency than its likelihood. I was wrong – panic was rational, complacency was irrational.

What now? First, family and friends. My whole community seems to be despairing. We need to strengthen and support each other.

But, also, I need to find ways to make the world a better place. I’m privileged in that my job lets me feel like I am doing good things – and I believe that I am. But it’s not sufficient now. I don’t know what else it will be, but I need to do more.

Mourning for the crew members of the Aqua Amazon

The Aqua Amazon, the night we boarded.

My family and I recently returned from a three week trip to Peru, where a highlight of the trip had been an Amazon cruise on a ship called the Aqua Amazon. It was an amazing experience, filled with wildlife and scenery the likes of which I hadn’t seen before.

This past Saturday, there was an explosion while the ship was refueling. It sank and, according to news reports, eight crew members were lost and more were seriously injured.

I got to know some of these people a little and I’m shocked and sorrowed to hear of this tragic accident. This was a friendly, caring, talented group. I’m overcome with grief for them. My thoughts are with the injured and the families of the victims.

I’m excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton

Vote for Hillary Clinton

Today is the California Primary. Usually, a presidential nominating contest is long over by the time California votes. And, in most ways, it is already over this year, too. But both candidates are campaigning as if California matters, so I voted that way.

I’m very excited to have voted for Hillary Clinton. She’s running as an unashamed pragmatic liberal, which is how I identify myself. She’s very savvy about how to make government work. From all perspectives I can see, she’d be an effective leader and would take the country in good directions on climate change, healthcare, the economy, foreign policy, and social justice.

On the other hand, I find Bernie Sanders very appealing, too. My beliefs on economic policy and foreign intervention are probably closer to his than to Clinton’s. And, if we were looking at a Senate with 65 Democratic votes and a 55% majority Democratic Congress, I could see voting for Sanders. But his agenda seems impossible to advance with a closely held legislature, let alone the Republican majorities we have today, and I don’t see him being effective in those circumstances. To use a term that’s usually pejorative, I want to elect someone from “The Establishment” now.

Is Hillary perfect from my perspective? Of course not. I think she’s too hawkish on foreign policy, as epitomized by her vote for the Iraq war, which was my most significant policy reason for not supporting her in 2008. And I have grave reservations about electing the spouse of a former president – America should not have dynastic habits. But, Hillary Clinton is smart, well qualified, and hard working enough to justify her election.

And, finally, it is important to remember that electing a woman to the American Presidency would be historic. When America didn’t allow women the vote for more than a hundred years and more than fifty Presidential elections have gone by with no women nominated by either major party, even her nomination is an important accomplishment to recognize.

The question I asked Justice Scalia

When I was an undergrad, I took a Constitutional Interpretation class taught by Walter Murphy. For a guest lecture, Professor Murphy brought in Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, who had only joined the Supreme Court a couple of years earlier, to talk about originalism, his legal theory. Being taught by a Supreme Court Justice was, of course, a special occasion. Even more so by virtue of it being Scalia, who was already famous (or infamous) and controversial. And, to top it off, Justice Scalia would take questions from the class after his lecture.

To a liberal like me, the opportunity to ask Scalia a question was too good to pass up. And I knew exactly what I wanted to ask about. I spent a little time doing research so I could formulate the question well. In the end, I asked something like “The Constitution never mentions corporations or talks about giving the rights of persons to non-persons. Yet, the court ruled in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. (1886) that corporations have the rights of persons. Doesn’t this go against the original meaning of the text?”

The Justice’s response was terse. I can’t claim to remember the exact wording, but it’s stuck with me as “That’s settled law. Move on.”

While I thought the “settled law” response was a little arbitrary, in a nation that values stare decisis and precedents, it makes sense. The question, of course, is how you decide that something is “settled law” and, therefore, should not be tampered with; or, in contrast, that a precedent so violates the original meaning of the Constitution that it must be overturned.

And there, lies, for me, Scalia’s hypocrisy. Where was the reverence for settled law in Heller or Citizens United? And why the respect for precedent in Obergefell v. Hodges?

In the end, I’m sure that Antonin Scalia – who criticized the opinion in Atkins v. Virgina for “rest[ing] so obviously upon nothing but the personal views of its members” – believed that he kept his political and legal beliefs separate. But the conclusions he reached about whether precedents were “settled law” or not appeared to coincide quite closely with his political views.

“Great is the truth, and it prevails”

The title of this post is the motto of Horace Mann, the high school I attended. The cover article of this week’s New York Times Magazine is a collection of stories of sexual abuse by teachers of students at the school, largely from around the time I was there. I knew all the teachers mentioned by name in the story and could recognize at least a few of the students involved.

My first reaction to the story, in an email to a friend, was “Amazing how clueless I was.” But that’s not quite right – I wasn’t as unaware as I wish I could claim in retrospect. For example, I had been on the trip where the incident which lead to Stan Kops’s firing occurred and had heard pretty concrete rumors about his firing. I definitely knew the stories and jokes about Joe “Clutch & Touch” Klein the driving teacher, which surfaced in another story. I think I’d also heard rumors about Mark Wright, but he was fired when I was in seventh grade (when he had been my art teacher), so I’m not sure I’d have understood the details, had I heard any.

The surprise in the article, for me and many others, are the apparently well-confirmed stories of Johannes Somary. I was never in Glee Club – anyone who’s heard me sing will know that – but many of my friends were. And many absolutely worshipped Somary. I was friends with one of his sons and fondly remember playing poker at their house. In this case, though, I was totally clueless. No rumors at all. Stories of the great man’s talent, his ego, his wealth, his eccentricities, even of the girls with crushes on him, but not a whiff of anything like predation. His story makes this scandal feel far more intimately bound up with the school than the others.

The Times article is upsetting and valuable, but is also quite odd. Hints are dropped about Inslee Clark, blaming him by innuendo for an environment of sexual abuse, but without the author actually saying so. The quantity of semi-anonymous sources seems exceptional outside of national security stories. While one paragraph mentions other schools, there’s very little in the way of comparisons or context. I’ve never seen a Times article explicitly name its editor before, but this one does; in this case, it’s another Horace Mann graduate (and, I should add, someone I both respect and have a lot of indirect connections to). But there are a lot of Horace Mann alumni who now work for the Times and that leaves the feeling that this story got special handling. To what effect? Is it gentler than it otherwise would have been? More prominent? As an outsider, I can’t tell.

On the other hand, the school’s reaction to this article is, to say the least, off-putting. It is the worst kind of bland, institutional damage control, hiding behind policies that make the Catholic Church look forthcoming. The school admits in weasely terms that it’s fired faculty for these kinds of accusations, but seems to make it clear that it hushed everything up. Yes, thank you for pointing out there’s a national hotline for abuse, but actually saying you’ll give information about crimes to prosecutors would be a better acknowledgement of the school’s responsibility.

Horace Mann, when I knew it, provided a great education. I’ve benefited tremendously from it; I’ve long said that my experience there had much more impact on me than college did. But it did so in an environment that seemed consciously envious of the traditions – the trivial, the honorable, and the sadistic – of English public schools. When I attended, students were mostly called by their first names, but it wasn’t many years before that they were all “Mr.” to the faculty. Academic standards were high. Teachers that verbally abused students were common. It is very sad that Inslee Clark, who probably did more than anyone else to bring the school into the modern world, is being tarred for hushing up or contributing to an abuse problem. How much was his fault? What did he know and what did he do? I wonder if anyone alive can say.

(I mostly knew Clark from taking a Kennedy Years elective he taught. He’d been inspired by John and Bobby Kennedy; the class reflected his continuing belief in the optimism of the New Frontier. But I also knew the stories of his drinking. Looking back, I could see that he drew energy from teaching and from baseball, but the rest of the time he seemed fatigued, distractible, and mired in depression.)

Conflated with all this – especially given the article’s focus on abuse of boys by male teachers – is the homophobia of the time. By the time we were in the upper school, we all knew that Inky Clark and Stan Kops were gay, but we snickered about it; back then, no students were out of the closet and open empathy for a gay teacher was difficult for high school students. (Not impossible – our much-beloved and untarnished-by-any-scandal theater teacher was very out of the closet.) Did homophobia make it harder for the school to acknowledge the problem? Are the abuse cases of young girls still hushed up, even more difficult to talk about? Or are they just not as newsworthy?

There are many tragedies here. The article discusses at least two suicides and the deaths of a few men who were broken, shadows of their original promise. The abuse, even when the victims recovered, was traumatic. And the school, when it acted to remove predators, apparently did nothing to prevent similar abuse happening somewhere else.

What I’m left with is a feeling that we all find it easy to turn away, willing to find some excuse not to see something so difficult. Does the truth prevail? Sometimes. And sometimes only when it’s too late.

IPOs (or why the absence of a pop is not a fizzle)

The big business story of the day is Facebook’s IPO, which is being described in the press as “modest,” a “whimper,” “fall[ing] short,” “sputter[ing],” “underwhelming,” and “a ho-hummer,” to pick a few choice terms. As even most of these articles acknowledge after their doom-and-gloom leads, these descriptions are wrong. The company (and some early shareholders) sold $16+ billion worth of shares to the public and the company is now valued at more than $100 billion. By contrast, the very-successful-in-retrospect Google IPO in 2004 sold about $1.67 billion to the public and valued the company around $27 billion.

The press finds its disappointment in the absence of a “first day pop.” A pop is the difference between the price a company is selling at and the price buyers were will to pay on that same day, so it’s often, rightly, described as “money left on the table.” A pop makes for a more exciting story, but doesn’t directly benefit the company or its shareholders.

Who does benefit? Traditionally, the good clients of the underwriters, who have just been given free money. And, indirectly, the underwriting investment banks, who have earned the goodwill of – one might argue “bribed” – those clients. The historical justification for this underpricing is that IPOs are risky and, to convince customers to invest in them, the price has to be a bit discounted. In particular, the IPOs are supposedly more volatile (riskier) because the price is a guess by the company and its bankers, who survey potential buyers, rather the result of trading in a liquid market.

But this latter condition didn’t really apply in Facebook’s case, thanks to the trading of Facebook shares in secondary markets. While those secondary markets probably overpriced the shares due to limited supply, they established a plausible range. (Late buyers in the secondary markets, who ended up paying a 10-15% premium over the first-day price, do not come off as great stock pickers.) Similarly, the Google IPO dutch auction was intended to set a fair initial price for the market.

Google’s IPO was described in similar disappointing terms to Facebook’s. One would think the press would have learned a lesson by now. (And some have.) But, instead, the absence of a pop becomes a “fizzle” in most of the press.

Is Facebook a successful business? It appears so. Did the company (and early investors and employees) successfully trade previously illiquid shares for cash at a price the market thinks is fair? I think so. Is it worth its current market cap? Time will tell. Will the stock go up or down? Yes.

Update (May 22): On the other hand, if the underwriters had inside information that revenues would be lower than estimates and shared that with some customers but not the general public, that seems wrong. Ethically wrong and legally wrong. Under those circumstances, the IPO would not reflect an honest, fair market valuation; instead, it would be little better than a pump and dump penny stock scam on a grand scale. I expect we’ll hear more in the next few days and I’m withholding judgement until more information is available.

(Disclaimer: This is my personal blog. Comments here reflect my own opinions, not those of my employer. Facebook and my employer compete in some areas; in addition, many of my friends work for Facebook. You can assume I’m very biased here, just in multiple, contradictory ways.)

Kindle Sample Optimization

One of the great things about ebooks is how easy it is to read a sample of a book. It’s become a matter of course to download a sample of any book that sounds interesting, without thinking about it, just to have it to hand when I’m looking for reading material. When the sample bit is interesting enough that I want to keep reading, I buy the book.

Of course, authors are now aware of this behavior. When books were mostly sold in physical bookstores, there certainly was incentive to make the first pages (or page 99) interesting to a browser. Now, however, there’s a very clear part of the book – the freely downloadable sample – in which the author can go into full-on sell mode. That can be a completely different thing from appealing to someone who’ll flip through a book and end up at a random spot.

What made me notice this was (the sample of) Barb Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing. The main vibe of the first part of the book was “Buy me! Buy me!”:

  • Taste What You’re Missing will help you better understand what you’re tasting by breaking food down to its component parts, such as the five Basic Tastes, and explaining how flavor differs from taste.” (page 9)
  • Taste What You’re Missing will help you enhance your perception of flavors.” (page 10)
  • Taste What You’re Missing will give you insider knowledge of how food marketers, restauranteurs–even farmers–leverage your insinctual reactions so you can make more informed food choices.” (page 12)
  • “To help with this, Taste What You’re Missing includes easy interactive exercises to illustrate the sensory concepts in the book.” (page 12, again)

This constant selling reminded me of many overly SEO’ed pages I’ve come across in my work, typically pushing one form of snake oil or another. While the book seemed interesting, it didn’t seem interesting enough to be worth putting up with the hard sell.

Dreaming of male answer syndrome

I woke to a dream where I was talking with someone who was either a former colleague who I couldn’t quite place or Ken Cosgrove. We were listening to music, definitely ’60s vintage jazz. He said he thought it was Chick Corea on drums. I insisted it was Jean Arp.

Ok, so neither my colleague’s pianist nor my dadaist sculptor/painter was playing the drums, but my answer was totally out of left field, where his made at least a little bit of sense.

Even in my dreams, I’m not just wrong, I’m reflexively, stubbornly, and dramatically wrong.