On reporting of murders

The way the media cover an event influences whether there will be repetitions. For example, if a fan runs onto the field during a baseball game, the broadcast cameras usually avoid showing pictures of the fan. The TV producers know that the fan on the field is seeking attention, and that, presumably, getting his picture on television will reward him. Moreover, broadcasting the man’s antics would encourage copycats.

Killing time at a baseball game is a tiny misdeed, compared to killing people, but many media decisions have the effect of encouraging copycat murders.

— Reducing the risk of copycat killers, David Kopel, 2007

Obama Claus

I love this video. Among a group of supporters vying for a slice of Barack Obama’s attention at a rally in Maryland, one man decides to tell the president, “I’m proud of you.” He says it in his first language, American sign language. Without a second thought Obama replies, “Thank you,” also in sign language.

Now I realize that Obama was saying thank you to pretty much every person he met along that line, without necessarily even hearing what anyone was saying to him. So it’s possible, maybe likely, that he didn’t understand what had been signed to him. He could have inferred from body language and context that it was something positive. I also recognize that the supporter in question, a student at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, arrived sufficiently late that there was “such a long line and I got so worried that I wouldn’t get a good seat to be able to see my interpreter” according to his own telling of events, so the fact that he got close enough to attract the president’s attention suggests that he may well have been seated deliberately to enable this kind of interaction.

But I don’t care. Because those thoughts occurred to me after I watched the video. What I thought of while I watched it was something much less cynical, and much more valuable.

There’s a movie scene that’s been among my favourites for, wow, nearly 20 years. It’s from the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street. In it, Richard Attenborough’s Santa Claus finds himself with a deaf girl on his knee at his grotto in the mall. The girl’s mother tells him that he doesn’t have to talk to her, that “she just wanted to see you”. Of course he ignores this comment and he talks to her in sign language. To him it simply doesn’t make sense that any child should be excluded from experiencing what all the other children get to experience just because she happens to be deaf.

Despite being a fiction, this one scene is the most touching example of how making a small effort to ensure people aren’t excluded can make a big difference.

I was 11 years old when that movie came out, and I’ve seen in any number of times since. That scene still inspires me to remember the huge effect an unexpected yet simple kindness can have on a person. I imagine that’s how this Obama supporter must feel.

Carbonite and Rush Limbaugh

Update, March 4: Carbonite have changed their position and have now withdrawn sponsorship from Limbaugh’s show. Kudos to them for choosing the right path even when it means abandoning a very effective marketing platform.

"Still days away from completing the initial backup and I'm already dumping @carbonite for their spinelessness wrt Rush Limbaugh sponsorship." - @roryparle on Twitter

I recently signed up for an off-site backup service called Carbonite. It’s a system for backing up your computer data but, rather than storing the backup on an external disk in your own home, it backs up to servers operated by Carbonite. The idea is that if you keep all of your data and backups in one place you’re at risk of losing it all at once. A fire or burglary could very easily leave you not only without your computer but also without your backups. Keeping the backups somewhere else, in this case in a datacenter, protects you in that kind of event.

Sounds great, right? I thought so too.

Unfortunately, some time into this initial backup but still quite a while from finishing it (the first backup takes a long time), I discovered a very compelling reason to cut it short and seek out an alternative provider.

Here’s why. Carbonite pays people to verbally abuse young women in public.

On February 29, conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh had this to say about Sandra Fluke, a student who was supposed to speak at a US congressional hearing on contraception and religious liberty:

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan [sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex—what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

Charming. But, hey, not a huge surprise. This is American conservative talk radio. What do you expect?

The trouble is, Carbonite is one of Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors. He makes money saying this crap, and the precise mechanism by which he makes that money is that Carbonite, and other companies, give it to him.

Carbonite paid Rush Limbaugh to call Sandra Fluke a prostitute on the radio.

At this point a reasonable company, or at least an ethical one, would distance themselves from what was said and withdraw future sponsorship. Here’s what Carbonite CEO David Friend said:

The nature of talk radio is that from time to time listeners are offended by a host and ask that we pull our advertising. […] We do not have control over a show’s editorial content or what they say on air. Carbonite does not endorse the opinions of the shows or their hosts.

In other words, “We just pay him to say this stuff. That doesn’t mean we endorse it.”

He goes on:

I will impress upon him that his comments were offensive to many of our customers and employees alike.

Or, “I hope that a media personality who thrives off controversy will reconsider his abusive and degrading statements at my request, even while I continue to scribble out his next paycheck.”

Limbaugh won’t change his tune just because advertisers ask him to. The only way to reach him is to pull the sponsorship. Similarly, David Friend won’t change his position just because his customers ask him to. The only way to reach him is to stop giving money to Carbonite.

“It’s My First Day”

In Google we have a practice called “snippets”, where every employee writes a short list of the things they achieved over the course of the preceding week, allowing anyone else in the company to keep track of anyone’s progress. It’s a handy way to find out what’s going on, and it’s also a good way for managers to keep tabs on their reports without having to micromanage them.

In the nearly two years that I’ve been at the company, even bearing i mind the kid of superstars that make up some of Google’s employee numbers, I’ve never come close to seeing a set of snippets to rival this day’s-worth of work. If I ever feel like I’ve done enough for a day and can afford to slack off for a bit, now I know that I haven’t and I can’t.

World’s First Lab-Engineered Organ Transplant

Woman given lab-engineered organ transplant – The Irish Times:

A woman has become the first person in the world to be given an entirely laboratory engineered organ in a landmark operation.

Claudia Castillo’s stem cells were used to create an artificial airway which replaced the bronchus to her left lung, which had collapsed after she suffered a serious tuberculosis infection.

Two things:

First, I don’t want anyone saying, “I’d give her a lab-engineered organ, if you know what I’m talking about!

Second, I think this technique is going to re-shape how we perform not only transplant operations but also cosmetic surgery, which is about adding things as much as it is about taking things away.

Ireland’s Proposed New Surveillance Legislation

I’ve just shared an item in Google Reader with an attached note that seems substantial enough to merit re-posting it here. The note concerns an article in the Irish Times about a surveillance bill that is to be brought before the cabinet tomorrow. Here it is:

It strikes me that this whole push is flawed in two major ways.

The first is that it seems to be very emotionally motivated: every news story about it makes a big deal about a single, recent, high-profile murder. But the plural of anecdote is not data, and extrapolating from a single event to try to demonstrate a trend is at best ignorant and at worst dishonest. The only useful statistic mentioned in this article, right at the bottom, indicates that gang crime in Limerick is falling dramatically. That’s not to say that that interpretation is necessarily correct either, but I’d like to see more fact and less emotion in the drafting and reporting of legislation.

The second major flaw is that no-one in the news media, as far as I can tell, has tried to discover whether or not this proposed legislation will expand the powers of the Gardaí to surveil without warrant, or whether it will simply allow more types of evidence to be admitted in court. This is the difference between a large potential infringement on individual privacy, and a small but significant alteration to judicial process. That strikes me as a large enough difference that it should be possible for an interested citizen to discover which is being proposed.

I Knew I Shouldn’t Have Left

From RTÉ News, my hometown can kick your hometown’s ass:

Greystones in Co Wicklow has been named the world’s most liveable community.

The LivCom Awards, which took place in China this year, focuses on environmental management and the creation of a liveable communities.

There were 20 other towns from around the world were competing for the award.

I would have thought there were more than 20 eligible towns, but maybe they were scared away when they heard who the competition would be. Greystones FTW!

Mary McAleese Supports Gay Marriage

…I assume. From a brief news piece on the President’s speech at a national forum for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth: 

President McAleese said that in order to respect diversity among young people, society needed to stand up for democratic values and refuse to go along with loudly voiced prejudices.

I take it this also includes refusing to go along with the loudly voiced prejudices or Ireland’s conservative Catholic majority? I’m getting antsy. Can we have our enlightenment yet?

I don’t know what McAleese’s stance is on gay marriage, so I can neither support nor condemn her. It just makes me uncomfortable to see a representative of our country making statements like this when it’s so clear that the majority of the people in this country will never let it be more than an empty soundbite.