Ramblings & ephemera

Security decisions are often made for non-security reasons

From Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram of 15 July 2004:

There was a single guard watching the X-ray machine’s monitor, and a line of people putting their bags onto the machine. The people themselves weren’t searched at all. Even worse, no guard was watching the people. So when I walked with everyone else in line and just didn’t put my bag onto the machine, no one noticed.

It was all good fun, and I very much enjoyed describing this to FinCorp’s VP of Corporate Security. He explained to me that he got a $5 million rate reduction from his insurance company by installing that X-ray machine and having some dogs sniff around the building a couple of times a week.

I thought the building’s security was a waste of money. It was actually a source of corporate profit.

The point of this story is one that I’ve made in ‘Beyond Fear’ and many other places: security decisions are often made for non-security reasons.

The real digital divide: knowing how to use what you have & not knowing

From Howard Rheingold’s interview in “Howard Rheingold’s Latest Connection” (Business Week: 11 August 2004):

Here’s where Wikipedia fits in. It used to be if you were a kid in a village in India or a village in northern Canada in the winter, maybe you could get to a place where they have a few books once in a while. Now, if you have a telephone, you can get a free encyclopedia. You have access to the world’s knowledge. Knowing how to use that is a barrier. The divide increasingly is not so much between those who have and those who don’t, but those who know how to use what they have and those who don’t.

How free riders are good for open source

From Howard Rheingold’s interview in “Howard Rheingold’s Latest Connection” (Business Week: 11 August 2004):

Then there’s open source [software]. Steve Weber, a political economist at UC Berkeley, sees open source as an economic means of production that turns the free-rider problem to its advantage. All the people who use the resource but don’t contribute to it just build up a larger user base. And if a very tiny percentage of them do anything at all—like report a bug—then those free riders suddenly become an asset.

Reading the impenetrable too fast

From Lee Siegel, quoted in Juliet Lapidos’s “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great” (Slate: 11 August 2011):

It was like Herbert Marcuse’s advice to a despairing graduate student who said he had spent days on a sentence in Hegel and still couldn’t understand it: “You’re reading too fast,” Marcuse told him.

How changes in glass changed working conditions

From Nicholas Carr’s “(re)framed” (Rough Type: 3 June 2011):

I’m reminded of an interesting passage in the book Glass: A World History:

As we have seen, one of the rapid developments in glass technology was the making of panes of window glass, plain and coloured, which was particularly noticeable in the northern half of Europe [after the twelfth century]. One very practical effect of this was on working conditions. In the cold and dark northern half of Europe people could now work for longer hours and with more precision because they were shielded from the elements. The light poured in, yet the cold was kept out. Prior to glass only thin slivers of horn or parchment were used and the window spaces were of necessity much smaller and the light admitted, dimmer.

Speaking at SLUUG: Amazing, Stupendous, Mind-Blowing Apps for iPad2

Jans Carton & I are delivering a talk at the St. Louis UNIX Users Group at 6:30 pm this Wednesday, 8 June 2011, titled “Amazing, Stupendous, Mind-Blowing Apps for iPad2”. We’ll be demoing iPad apps live for everyone. If you want to find out more about the iPad, or discover some awesome new iPad apps, then come hear Jans & I speak.

Here’s the complete description:

It’s becoming crystal clear that tablets and other mobile devices are leading the computing revolution into the next decade, and at the forefront (at least for now) is Apple’s iPad. Scott Granneman & Jans Carton will demonstrate iPad apps that they find particularly useful, cool, or amazing – sometimes all three at the same time! You’ll see apps for everything from video to games to reading to productivity, and much, much more. We guarantee you’ll see something that makes you think, and something else that makes you go “Wow!”.

The meeting will be held at Graybar Electric Co., Inc. at 11885 Lackland Road, 63146. Directions are at http://sluug.org/resources/meeting_info/map_graybar.shtml, & a Google Map can be found at http://goo.gl/maps/jnpX.

Saul Bass changed how audiences view movie credits

From Christian Annyas’s “Saul Bass Title Sequences“:

“PROJECTIONISTS – PULL CURTAIN BEFORE TITLES”.

This is the text of a note that was stuck on the cans when the reels of film for “The Man With the Golden Arm” arrived at US movie theatres in 1955.

Until then the credits were referred to as ‘popcorn time.’ Audiences resented them and projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished.
Saul Bass’ powerful title sequence for “The Man With the Golden Arm” changed the way directors and designers would treat the opening titles.

“For the average audience, the credits tell them there’s only three minutes left to eat popcorn. I take this ‘dead’ period and try to do more than simply get rid of names that filmgoers aren’t interested in. I aim to set up the audience for what’s coming; make them expectant.” — SAUL BASS

The Pareto Principle & Temperament Dimensions

From David Brooks’ “More Tools For Thinking” (The New York Times: 29 March 2011):

Clay Shirkey nominates the Pareto Principle. We have the idea in our heads that most distributions fall along a bell curve (most people are in the middle). But this is not how the world is organized in sphere after sphere. The top 1 percent of the population control 35 percent of the wealth. The top two percent of Twitter users send 60 percent of the messages. The top 20 percent of workers in any company will produce a disproportionate share of the value. Shirkey points out that these distributions are regarded as anomalies. They are not.

Helen Fisher, the great researcher into love and romance, has a provocative entry on “temperament dimensions.” She writes that we have four broad temperament constellations. One, built around the dopamine system, regulates enthusiasm for risk. A second, structured around the serotonin system, regulates sociability. A third, organized around the prenatal testosterone system, regulates attention to detail and aggressiveness. A fourth, organized around the estrogen and oxytocin systems, regulates empathy and verbal fluency.

This is an interesting schema to explain temperament. It would be interesting to see others in the field evaluate whether this is the best way to organize our thinking about our permanent natures.

Some great gross parasites

Parasitoid Wasps

From Charles Q. Choi’s “Web-manipulating wasps” (Live Science: 2 March 2011):

Although parasites harm their hosts, they don’t usually kill them, if only to keep themselves alive. Not so with parasitoids, which ultimately destroy and often consume their hosts. Parasitoid wasps, which inspired the monster in the movie “Alien,” lay their eggs inside their victims, with the offspring eventually devouring their way out. A number of the species control their host’s minds in extraordinary ways — the larvae of the wasp Hymenoepimecis argyraphaga, which infests the spider Plesiometa argyra, makes their victims spin unusual webs especially well-suited for supporting their cocoons.

From Charles Q. Choi’s “Male-killing bacteria” (Live Science: 2 March 2011):

The genus of bacteria known as Wolbachia infests a whopping 70 percent of the world’s invertebrates, and has evolved devious strategies to keep spreading. In female hosts, the germ can hitch a ride to the next generation aboard the mother’s eggs, and since males are essentially useless for the bacteria’s survival, the parasite often eliminates them to increase the rate of females born, by either killing male embryos outright or turning them into females.

From Charles Q. Choi’s “Head-bursting fungus” (Live Science: 2 March 2011):

Dead ant zombified by fungus

Credit: David P. Hughes

In a bizarre death sentence, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis turns carpenter ants into the walking dead. The fungus prefers the undersides of leaves of plants growing on the forest floor. That’s where temperature, humidity and sunlight are ideal for the fungus to grow and reproduce and infect more victims. The parasite gets the insects to die hanging upside down, and then erupts a long stalk from their heads with which it sprinkle its spores to other ants. Fossil evidence recently suggested this fungus has zombified ants for millions of years.

From Charles Q. Choi’s “Tongue-eating crustacean” (Live Science: 2 March 2011):

The crustacean Cymothoa exigua has the dubious and unsettling honor of being the only parasite known to replace an organ. It enters through the gills of the spotted rose snapper, attaching to the base of the fish’s tongue, where it drinks its blood. The bloodsucking causes the tongue to eventually wither away, at which point the crustacean attaches itself to the tongue stub, acting as the fish’s tongue from then on.

Clay Shirky on the changes to publishing & media

From Parul Sehgal’s “Here Comes Clay Shirky” (Publisher’s Weekly: 21 June 2010):

PW: In April of this year, Wired‘s Kevin Kelly turned a Shirky quote—“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution”—into “the Shirky Principle,” in deference to the simple, yet powerful observation. … Kelly explained, “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions, like a company, or an industry, can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.”

CS: It is possible to think that the Internet will be a net positive for society while admitting that there are significant downsides—after all, it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.

No one will ever wonder, is there anything amusing for me on the Internet? That is a solved problem. What we should really care about are [the Internet’s] cultural uses.

In Here Comes Everybody I told the story of the Abbot of Sponheim who in 1492 wrote a book saying that if this printing press thing is allowed to expand, what will the scribes do for a living? But it was more important that Europe be literate than for scribes to have a job.

In a world where a book had to be a physical object, charging money was a way to cause more copies to come into circulation. In the digital world, charging money for something is a way to produce fewer copies. There is no way to preserve the status quo and not abandon that value.

Some of it’s the brilliant Upton Sinclair observation: “It’s hard to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” From the laying on of hands of [Italian printer] Aldus Manutius on down, publishing has always been this way. This is a medium where a change to glue-based paperback binding constituted a revolution.

PW: When do you think a similar realization will come to book publishing?

CS: I think someone will make the imprint that bypasses the traditional distribution networks. Right now the big bottleneck is the head buyer at Barnes & Noble. That’s the seawall holding back the flood in publishing. Someone’s going to say, “I can do a business book or a vampire book or a romance novel, whatever, that might sell 60% of the units it would sell if I had full distribution and a multimillion dollar marketing campaign—but I can do it for 1% percent of the cost.” It has already happened a couple of times with specialty books. The moment of tip happens when enough things get joined up to create their own feedback loop, and the feedback loop in publishing changes when someone at Barnes & Noble says: “We can’t afford not to stock this particular book or series from an independent publisher.” It could be on Lulu, or iUniverse, whatever. And, I feel pretty confident saying it’s going to happen in the next five years.

These are their brilliant plans to save magazines?

From Jeremy W. Peters’ “In Magazine World, a New Crop of Chiefs” (The New York Times: 28 November 2010):

“This is the changing of the guard from an older school to a newer school,” said Justin B. Smith, president of the Atlantic Media Company. The changes, he added, were part of an inevitable evolution in publishing that was perhaps long overdue. “It is quite remarkable that it took until 2010, 15 years after the arrival of the Internet, for a new generation of leaders to emerge.”

At Time, the world’s largest magazine publisher, Mr. Griffin said he wanted to reintroduce the concept of “charging a fair price, and charging consumers who are interested in the product.” In other words, consumers can expect to pay more. “We spent a tremendous amount of money creating original content, original journalism, fact-checking, sending reporters overseas to cover wars,” he said. “You name it. What we’ve got to do as a business is get fair value for that.” Supplementing that approach, Mr. Griffin said, will be new partnerships within Time Warner, Time Inc.’s parent company, that allow magazines to take advantage of the vast film and visual resources at their disposal. One such partnership in the planning stages, he said, is a deal between a major cosmetics company and InStyle to broadcast from the red carpets of big Hollywood events like the Academy Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

But one thing Mr. Harty said the company was examining: expanding its licensed products. The company already pulls in more than a billion dollars a year selling products with a Better Homes and Gardens license at Wal-Mart stores. It is now planning to sell plants and bulbs with the magazine’s imprimatur directly to consumers. “We have relationships with all these consumers,” Mr. Harty said. “How can we figure out how to sell them goods and services? We believe that’s a key.”

David Pogue’s insights about tech over time

From David Pogue’s “The Lessons of 10 Years of Talking Tech” (The New York Times: 25 November 2010):

As tech decades go, this one has been a jaw-dropper. Since my first column in 2000, the tech world has not so much blossomed as exploded. Think of all the commonplace tech that didn’t even exist 10 years ago: HDTV, Blu-ray, GPS, Wi-Fi, Gmail, YouTube, iPod, iPhone, Kindle, Xbox, Wii, Facebook, Twitter, Android, online music stores, streaming movies and on and on.

With the turkey cooking, this seems like a good moment to review, to reminisce — and to distill some insight from the first decade in the new tech millennium.

Things don’t replace things; they just splinter. I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to keep hearing pundits say that some product is the “iPhone killer” or the “Kindle killer.” Listen, dudes: the history of consumer tech is branching, not replacing.

Things don’t replace things; they just add on. Sooner or later, everything goes on-demand. The last 10 years have brought a sweeping switch from tape and paper storage to digital downloads. Music, TV shows, movies, photos and now books and newspapers. We want instant access. We want it easy.

Some people’s gadgets determine their self-esteem. … Today’s gadgets are intensely personal. Your phone or camera or music player makes a statement, reflects your style and character. No wonder some people interpret criticisms of a product as a criticism of their choices. By extension, it’s a critique of them.

Everybody reads with a lens. … feelings run just as strongly in the tech realm. You can’t use the word “Apple,” “Microsoft” or “Google” in a sentence these days without stirring up emotion.

It’s not that hard to tell the winners from the losers. … There was the Microsoft Spot Watch (2003). This was a wireless wristwatch that could display your appointments and messages — but cost $10 a month, had to be recharged nightly and wouldn’t work outside your home city unless you filled out a Web form in advance.

Some concepts’ time may never come. The same “breakthrough” ideas keep surfacing — and bombing, year after year. For the love of Mike, people, nobody wants videophones!

Teenagers do not want “communicators” that do nothing but send text messages, either (AT&T Ogo, Sony Mylo, Motorola V200). People do not want to surf the Internet on their TV screens (WebTV, AOLTV, Google TV). And give it up on the stripped-down kitchen “Internet appliances” (3Com Audrey, Netpliance i-Opener, Virgin Webplayer). Nobody has ever bought one, and nobody ever will.

Forget about forever — nothing lasts a year. Of the thousands of products I’ve reviewed in 10 years, only a handful are still on the market. Oh, you can find some gadgets whose descendants are still around: iPod, BlackBerry, Internet Explorer and so on.

But it’s mind-frying to contemplate the millions of dollars and person-years that were spent on products and services that now fill the Great Tech Graveyard: Olympus M-Robe. PocketPC. Smart Display. MicroMV. MSN Explorer. Aibo. All those PlaysForSure music players, all those Palm organizers, all those GPS units you had to load up with maps from your computer.

Everybody knows that’s the way tech goes. The trick is to accept your
gadget’s obsolescence at the time you buy it…

Nobody can keep up. Everywhere I go, I meet people who express the same reaction to consumer tech today: there’s too much stuff coming too fast. It’s impossible to keep up with trends, to know what to buy, to avoid feeling left behind. They’re right. There’s never been a period of greater technological change. You couldn’t keep up with all of it if you tried.

Hanoi’s last blacksmith

From Seth Mydans’s “A Lone Blacksmith, Where Hammers Rang” (The New York Times: 25 November 2010):

HANOI, Vietnam — He is the last blacksmith on Blacksmith Street, dark with soot, his arms dappled with burns, sweating and hammering at his little roadside forge as a new world courses past him.

The son and grandson of blacksmiths, Nguyen Phuong Hung grew up when the street still rang with the sounds of the smithies, producing farm equipment, horseshoes and hand tools, before modern commerce and industrial production made them obsolete. “I still remember, when it was raining lightly, the streets were empty and that was all you could hear was the sounds of the hammers,” said Mr. Hung, 49.

The men who worked there left for lighter, better-paying work, and because the word was out that no modern woman would marry a blacksmith, Mr. Hung said. There may be other blacksmiths working in Vietnam, he said, but not here in the capital.

“Once I am gone the street will have no meaning anymore,” he said. “Blacksmith Street will be only a name.” That has been the fate of almost all the 36 narrow streets in Hanoi’s tree-shaded Ancient Quarter, each of them named for the guilds that once controlled them — Fan Street, China Bowl Street, Sweet Potato Street, Conical Hat Street.

There is nothing like this little corner of the urban past anywhere else in Vietnam. Only four of the streets have retained something of their original businesses, said Nguyen Vinh Phuc, a leading historian of Hanoi. There are still jewelry shops on Silver Street, sweets and pastries on Sugar Street, votive papers and toys on Votive Paper Street and pots and pans on Tin Street.

Traders have done business on this spot since the ninth century, Mr. Phuc said. The 36 guilds established themselves at the start of the 19th century.

Blacksmith Street got its name at the beginning of the 19th century, Mr. Phuc said, when French colonial administrators sent out a call for metal workers to help build the Long Bien bridge over the Red River. It was designed by the French architect Gustave Eiffel and became a target of American bombing raids during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Hung’s family has been here from the start, and like his father and grandfather he was called to help out around the forge when he was just a boy, as young as 6. But he rebelled and left for jobs as a driver and factory worker until, when he was 35, his father called him back. “My father told me this is the family trade and I’m the only one left to do it,” Mr. Hung said. “He said, ‘Just watch me work and you’ll learn what to do.’”

Mr. Hung discovered that he loved the work, and that it was his destiny to be a blacksmith. He remembered his father’s words: “When the iron glows red, you earn your money. That is your life.”

Mr. Hung has set up a little tea table on the sidewalk, refilling a thermos from a huge iron kettle that swings gently above the hot coals. A giant bamboo pipe leans against the table, and passersby are welcome to stop for a lungful of strong tobacco.

Mr. Hung hammers with the confidence of a master, bare-handed as he works because he says gloves would dull his touch. Wearing a pair of plastic sandals, he ignores the sparks that sting his feet and pepper his shirt with holes. Flames and smoke gush from the hot metal as he tempers it in a bucket of oil. By the end of the day, his arms and face are black with soot.

Unix: An Oral History

From ‘s “Unix: An Oral History” (: ):

Multics

Gordon M. Brown

[Multics] was designed to include fault-free continuous operation capabilities, convenient remote terminal access and selective information sharing. One of the most important features of Multics was to follow the trend towards integrated multi-tasking and permit multiple programming environments and different human interfaces under one operating system.

Moreover, two key concepts had been picked up on in the development of Multics that would later serve to define Unix. These were that the less important features of the system introduced more complexity and, conversely, that the most important property of algorithms was simplicity. Ritchie explained this to Mahoney, articulating that:

The relationship of Multics to [the development of Unix] is actually interesting and fairly complicated. There were a lot of cultural things that were sort of taken over wholesale. And these include important things, [such as] the hierarchical file system and tree-structure file system – which incidentally did not get into the first version of Unix on the PDP-7. This is an example of why the whole thing is complicated. But any rate, things like the hierarchical file system, choices of simple things like the characters you use to edit lines as you’re typing, erasing characters were the same as those we had. I guess the most important fundamental thing is just the notion that the basic style of interaction with the machine, the fact that there was the notion of a command line, the notion was an explicit shell program. In fact the name shell came from Multics. A lot of extremely important things were completely internalized, and of course this is the way it is. A lot of that came through from Multics.

The Beginning

Michael Errecart and Cameron Jones

Files to Share

The Unix file system was based almost entirely on the file system for the failed Multics project. The idea was for file sharing to take place with explicitly separated file systems for each user, so that there would be no locking of file tables.

A major part of the answer to this question is that the file system had to be open. The needs of the group dictated that every user had access to every other user’s files, so the Unix system had to be extremely open. This openness is even seen in the password storage, which is not hidden at all but is encrypted. Any user can see all the encrypted passwords, but can only test one solution per second, which makes it extremely time consuming to try to break into the system.

The idea of standard input and output for devices eventually found its way into Unix as pipes. Pipes enabled users and programmers to send one function’s output into another function by simply placing a vertical line, a ‘|’ between the two functions. Piping is one of the most distinct features of Unix …

Language from B to C

… Thompson was intent on having Unix be portable, and the creation of a portable language was intrinsic to this. …

Finding a Machine

Darice Wong & Jake Knerr

… Thompson devoted a month apiece to the shell, editor, assembler, and other software tools. …

Use of Unix started in the patent office of Bell Labs, but by 1972 there were a number of non-research organizations at Bell Labs that were beginning to use Unix for software development. Morgan recalls the importance of text processing in the establishment of Unix. …

Building Unix

Jason Aughenbaugh, Jonathan Jessup, & Nicholas Spicher

The Origin of Pipes

The first edition of Thompson and Ritchie’s The Unix Programmer’s Manual was dated November 3, 1971; however, the idea of pipes is not mentioned until the Version 3 Unix manual, published in February 1973. …

Software Tools

grep was, in fact, one of the first programs that could be classified as a software tool. Thompson designed it at the request of McIlroy, as McIlroy explains:

One afternoon I asked Ken Thompson if he could lift the regular expression recognizer out of the editor and make a one-pass program to do it. He said yes. The next morning I found a note in my mail announcing a program named grep. It worked like a charm. When asked what that funny name meant, Ken said it was obvious. It stood for the editor command that it simulated, g/re/p (global regular expression print)….From that special-purpose beginning, grep soon became a household word. (Something I had to stop myself from writing in the first paragraph above shows how firmly naturalized the idea now is: ‘I used ed to grep out words from the dictionary.’) More than any other single program, grep focused the viewpoint that Kernighan and Plauger christened and formalized in Software Tools: make programs that do one thing and do it well, with as few preconceptions about input syntax as possible.

eqn and grep are illustrative of the Unix toolbox philosophy that McIlroy phrases as, “Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.” This philosophy was enshrined in Kernighan and Plauger’s 1976 book, Software Tools, and reiterated in the “Foreword” to the issue of The Bell Systems Technical Journal that also introduced pipes.

Ethos

Robert Murray-Rust & Malika Seth

McIlroy says,

This is the Unix philosophy. Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs that handle text streams because, that is a universal interface.

The dissemination of Unix, with a focus on what went on within Bell Labs

Steve Chen

In 1973, the first Unix applications were installed on a system involved in updating directory information and intercepting calls to numbers that had been changed. This was the first time Unix had been used in supporting an actual, ongoing operating business. Soon, Unix was being used to automate the operations systems at Bell Laboratories. It was automating the monitoring, involved in measurement, and helping to rout calls and ensure the quality of the calls.

There were numerous reasons for the friendliness the academic society, especially the academic Computer Science community, showed towards Unix. John Stoneback relates a few of these:

Unix came into many CS departments largely because it was the only powerful interactive system that could run on the sort of hardware (PDP-11s) that universities could afford in the mid ’70s. In addition, Unix itself was also very inexpensive. Since source code was provided, it was a system that could be shaped to the requirements of a particular installation. It was written in a language considerably more attractive than assembly, and it was small enough to be studied and understood by individuals. (John Stoneback, “The Collegiate Community,” Unix Review, October 1985, p. 27.)

The key features and characteristics of Unix that held it above other operating systems at the time were its software tools, its portability, its flexibility, and the fact that it was simple, compact, and efficient. The development of Unix in Bell Labs was carried on under a set of principles that the researchers had developed to guide their work. These principles included:

(i) Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new features.

(ii) Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don’t clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don’t insist on interactive input.

(iii) Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don’t hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.

(iv) Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you’ve finished using them.”

(M.D. McIlroy, E.N. Pinson, and B.A. Tague “Unix Time-Sharing System Forward,” The Bell System Technical Journal, July-Aug 1088 vol 57, number 6 part 2. P. 1902)

The widespread corruption at the heart of Greek culture

From Michael Lewis’s “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds” (Vanity Fair: 1 October 2010):

In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn’t take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece’s rail passengers into taxicabs: it’s still true. “We have a railroad company which is bankrupt beyond comprehension,” Manos put it to me. “And yet there isn’t a single private company in Greece with that kind of average pay.” The Greek public-school system is the site of breathtaking inefficiency: one of the lowest-ranked systems in Europe, it nonetheless employs four times as many teachers per pupil as the highest-ranked, Finland’s. Greeks who send their children to public schools simply assume that they will need to hire private tutors to make sure they actually learn something. There are three government-owned defense companies: together they have billions of euros in debts, and mounting losses. The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as “arduous” is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets.

A handful of the tax collectors, however, were outraged by the systematic corruption of their business; it further emerged that two of them were willing to meet with me. The problem was that, for reasons neither wished to discuss, they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. This, I’d be told many times by other Greeks, was very Greek.

Tax Collector No. 1—early 60s, business suit, tightly wound but not obviously nervous—arrived with a notebook filled with ideas for fixing the Greek tax-collection agency. He just took it for granted that I knew that the only Greeks who paid their taxes were the ones who could not avoid doing so—the salaried employees of corporations, who had their taxes withheld from their paychecks. The vast economy of self-employed workers—everyone from doctors to the guys who ran the kiosks that sold the International Herald Tribune—cheated (one big reason why Greece has the highest percentage of self-employed workers of any European country). “It’s become a cultural trait,” he said. “The Greek people never learned to pay their taxes. And they never did because no one is punished. No one has ever been punished. It’s a cavalier offense—like a gentleman not opening a door for a lady.”

The scale of Greek tax cheating was at least as incredible as its scope: an estimated two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes under 12,000 euros a year—which meant, because incomes below that amount weren’t taxable, that even plastic surgeons making millions a year paid no tax at all. The problem wasn’t the law—there was a law on the books that made it a jailable offense to cheat the government out of more than 150,000 euros—but its enforcement. “If the law was enforced,” the tax collector said, “every doctor in Greece would be in jail.” I laughed, and he gave me a stare. “I am completely serious.” One reason no one is ever prosecuted—apart from the fact that prosecution would seem arbitrary, as everyone is doing it—is that the Greek courts take up to 15 years to resolve tax cases. “The one who does not want to pay, and who gets caught, just goes to court,” he says. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the activity in the Greek economy that might be subject to the income tax goes officially unrecorded, he says, compared with an average of about 18 percent in the rest of Europe.

The easiest way to cheat on one’s taxes was to insist on being paid in cash, and fail to provide a receipt for services. The easiest way to launder cash was to buy real estate. Conveniently for the black market—and alone among European countries—Greece has no working national land registry. “You have to know where the guy bought the land—the address—to trace it back to him,” says the collector. “And even then it’s all handwritten and hard to decipher.”

On he went, describing a system that was, in its way, a thing of beauty. It mimicked the tax-collecting systems of an advanced economy—and employed a huge number of tax collectors—while it was in fact rigged to enable an entire society to cheat on their taxes.

Tax Collector No. 2—casual in manner and dress, beer-drinking, but terrified that others might discover he had spoken to me—also arrived with a binder full of papers, only his was stuffed with real-world examples not of Greek people but Greek companies that had cheated on their taxes. He then started to rattle off examples (“only the ones I personally witnessed”). The first was an Athenian construction company that had built seven giant apartment buildings and sold off nearly 1,000 condominiums in the heart of the city. Its corporate tax bill honestly computed came to 15 million euros, but the company had paid nothing at all. Zero. To evade taxes it had done several things. First, it never declared itself a corporation; second, it employed one of the dozens of companies that do nothing but create fraudulent receipts for expenses never incurred and then, when the tax collector stumbled upon the situation, offered him a bribe. The tax collector blew the whistle and referred the case to his bosses—whereupon he found himself being tailed by a private investigator, and his phones tapped. In the end the case was resolved, with the construction company paying 2,000 euros. “After that I was taken off all tax investigations,” said the tax collector, “because I was good at it.”

The Greek state was not just corrupt but also corrupting. Once you saw how it worked you could understand a phenomenon which otherwise made no sense at all: the difficulty Greek people have saying a kind word about one another. Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. I left two dozen interviews saying to myself, “What great people!” They do not share the sentiment about one another: the hardest thing to do in Greece is to get one Greek to compliment another behind his back. No success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith in one another is self-reinforcing. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing makes any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, they fall back on themselves and their families.

The structure of the Greek economy is collectivist, but the country, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. Into this system investors had poured hundreds of billions of dollars. And the credit boom had pushed the country over the edge, into total moral collapse.

The Vatopaidi monastery, along with 19 others, was built in the 10th century on a 37-mile-long-by-6-mile-wide peninsula in northeast Greece, called Mount Athos. Mount Athos now is severed from the mainland by a long fence, and so the only way onto it is by boat, which gives the peninsula the flavor of an island. And on this island no women are allowed—no female animals of any kind, in fact, except for cats. The official history ascribes the ban to the desire of the church to honor the Virgin; the unofficial one to the problem of monks hitting on female visitors. The ban has stood for 1,000 years.

The ferry chugs for three hours along a rocky, wooded, but otherwise barren coastline, stopping along the way to drop monks and pilgrims and guest workers at other monasteries. The sight of the first one just takes my breath away. It’s not a building but a spectacle: it’s as if someone had taken Assisi or Todi or one of the other old central-Italian hill towns and plopped it down on the beach, in the middle of nowhere. Unless you know what to expect on Mount Athos—it has been regarded by the Eastern Orthodox Church for more than a millennium as the holiest place on earth, and it enjoyed for much of that time a symbiotic relationship with Byzantine emperors—these places come as a shock. There’s nothing modest about them; they are grand and complicated and ornate and obviously in some sort of competition with one another. In the old days, pirates routinely plundered them, and you can see why: it would be almost shameful not to, for a pirate.

Otherwise the experience was sensational, to be recommended to anyone looking for a taste of 10th-century life. Beneath titanic polished golden chandeliers, and surrounded by freshly cleaned icons, the monks sang; the monks chanted; the monks vanished behind screens to utter strange incantations; the monks shook what sounded like sleigh bells; the monks floated by waving thuribles, leaving in their wake smoke and the ancient odor of incense. Every word that was said and sung and chanted was Biblical Greek (it seemed to have something to do with Jesus Christ), but I nodded right along anyway. I stood when they stood, and sat when they sat: up and down we went like pogos, for hours. The effect of the whole thing was heightened by the monks’ magnificently wild beards. Even when left to nature, beards do not all grow in the same way. There are types: the hopelessly porous mass of fuzz; the Osama bin Laden/Assyrian-king trowel; the Karl Marx bird’s nest. A surprising number of the monks resembled the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercial. (“His beard alone has experienced more than a lesser man’s entire body.”)

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 percent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans either.

But this question of whether Greece will repay its debts is really a question of whether Greece will change its culture, and that will happen only if Greeks want to change. I am told 50 times if I am told once that what Greeks care about is “justice” and what really boils the Greek blood is the feeling of unfairness. Obviously this distinguishes them from no human being on the planet, and ignores what’s interesting: exactly what a Greek finds unfair. It’s clearly not the corruption of their political system. It’s not cheating on their taxes, or taking small bribes in their service to the state. No: what bothers them is when some outside party—someone clearly different from themselves, with motives apart from narrow and easily understood self-interest—comes in and exploits the corruption of their system.

Arguments against gay marriage make no sense

From Theodore B. Olson’s “The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” (Truthout: 12 January 2010):

What, then, are the justifications for California’s decision in Proposition 8 to withdraw access to the institution of marriage for some of its citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation? The reasons I have heard are not very persuasive.

The explanation mentioned most often is tradition. But simply because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that it must always remain that way. Otherwise we would still have segregated schools and debtors’ prisons. Gays and lesbians have always been among us, forming a part of our society, and they have lived as couples in our neighborhoods and communities. For a long time, they have experienced discrimination and even persecution; but we, as a society, are starting to become more tolerant, accepting, and understanding. California and many other states have allowed gays and lesbians to form domestic partnerships (or civil unions) with most of the rights of married heterosexuals. Thus, gay and lesbian individuals are now permitted to live together in state-sanctioned relationships. It therefore seems anomalous to cite “tradition” as a justification for withholding the status of marriage and thus to continue to label those relationships as less worthy, less sanctioned, or less legitimate.

The second argument I often hear is that traditional marriage furthers the state’s interest in procreation — and that opening marriage to same-sex couples would dilute, diminish, and devalue this goal. But that is plainly not the case. Preventing lesbians and gays from marrying does not cause more heterosexuals to marry and conceive more children. Likewise, allowing gays and lesbians to marry someone of the same sex will not discourage heterosexuals from marrying a person of the opposite sex. How, then, would allowing same-sex marriages reduce the number of children that heterosexual couples conceive?

This procreation argument cannot be taken seriously. We do not inquire whether heterosexual couples intend to bear children, or have the capacity to have children, before we allow them to marry. We permit marriage by the elderly, by prison inmates, and by persons who have no intention of having children. What’s more, it is pernicious to think marriage should be limited to heterosexuals because of the state’s de-sire to promote procreation. We would surely not accept as constitutional a ban on marriage if a state were to decide, as China has done, to discourage procreation.

Another argument, vaguer and even less persuasive, is that gay marriage somehow does harm to heterosexual marriage. I have yet to meet anyone who can explain to me what this means. In what way would allowing same-sex partners to marry diminish the marriages of heterosexual couples? Tellingly, when the judge in our case asked our opponent to identify the ways in which same-sex marriage would harm heterosexual marriage, to his credit he answered honestly: he could not think of any.

The simple fact is that there is no good reason why we should deny marriage to same-sex partners. On the other hand, there are many reasons why we should formally recognize these relationships and embrace the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and become full and equal members of our society.

California’s Proposition 8 is particularly vulnerable to constitutional challenge, because that state has now enacted a crazy-quilt of marriage regulation that makes no sense to anyone. California recognizes marriage between men and women, including persons on death row, child abusers, and wife beaters. At the same time, California prohibits marriage by loving, caring, stable partners of the same sex, but tries to make up for it by giving them the alternative of “domestic partnerships” with virtually all of the rights of married persons except the official, state-approved status of marriage. Finally, California recognizes 18,000 same-sex marriages that took place in the months between the state Supreme Court’s ruling that upheld gay-marriage rights and the decision of California’s citizens to withdraw those rights by enacting Proposition 8.

So there are now three classes of Californians: heterosexual couples who can get married, divorced, and remarried, if they wish; same-sex couples who cannot get married but can live together in domestic partnerships; and same-sex couples who are now married but who, if they divorce, cannot remarry. This is an irrational system, it is discriminatory, and it cannot stand.

HDTV’s widely adopted by American households

From Alex Mindlin’s “Room to Grow as Homes Add HD TVs” (The New York Times: 21 November 2010):

High-definition televisions have entered American homes with startling speed; 56 percent of households now have at least some HD channels and an HD set, according to Nielsen. Among consumer technologies, that speed of adoption is rivaled only by the VCR.

But the average television viewer is still unlikely to watch television in high definition. One reason is that people watch some standard channels on their HD sets. But a more important reason for the low HD viewing rate is that most homes have several televisions, of which the HD set is only one.

“What we’re seeing,” [Pat McDonough, a senior television analyst at Nielsen] said, “is that people want a second high-definition set pretty quickly, once they get used to watching it.”

Indeed, in households with a single HD set, family members diverge from normal American viewing patterns; rather than migrating to their rooms at night to watch TV on separate sets, they cluster in the living room around the HD set.

Matthew Arnold’s 4 words that describe Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

I think it’s through that effort, trying to turn Homer into poetry, that we just may come a little closer to Matthew Arnold’s unforgettable touchstones—Homer is simple, direct, swift, and above all, noble.

Robert Fagles on the dramatic sense of Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

As I read Homer, he’s a remarkable combination of the timeless, immortal phrase, and of the timely, too, and he’s meant to be heard, not read. “Homer makes us Hearers”—in Pope’s fine formulation—“and Virgil leaves us Readers.” The Iliad is more than half dialogue, direct discourse; the Odyssey more than two-thirds. Both are very dramatic poems, in other words, filled with many voices. It’s as if Homer were a ventriloquist, projecting his voice into the voices of dozens of people living within his poems. That’s one of the most important things to capture—if you can—the dramatic sense that he conveys. Whole books (Books Nine and Twenty-four of the Iliad, Nineteen and Twenty-three of the Odyssey, the reunion of the king and queen) could be lifted out of the text and placed directly on a stage. They’re plays waiting to be performed.

Shelby Foote on how the Civil War changed the gender of the teaching profession

From Carter Coleman, Donald Faulkner, & William Kennedy’s interview of Shelby Foote in “The Art of Fiction No. 158” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

About the time that war started I think roughly eighty-five or ninety percent of the teachers in this country were men. After the war was over something like eighty-five to ninety percent of teachers were women.