The Great Evils of HTML in E-Mail

Jun 302005

I really, really, really hate e-mails formatted in HTML. Why? Because I cannot quote and annotate a reply to an HTML message without spending 15 minutes of manual formatting labor.

I am perfectly willing to concede that much of the problem stems from the strange limitations of MS Outlook rather than with HTML e-mails themselves. As far as I can tell, I could fix this problem by forcing Outlook to show me all e-mails in plain text. But when I do that, solicited commercial e-mails designed for HTML transmogrify into their wholly inadequate plain text country cousins. (Yet even when I used Eudora, I was routinely annoyed by its handling of HTML e-mail, as it forced me to compose my reply in HTML, then it stripped it to plain text upon sending. In fact, all replies were in some strange HTML-ish format. Ach, I long for the simplicty of PINE!)

In general, Outlook seems to object to the old fashioned quote-with-brackets method of replying. It would prefer to put the original message below in full. I regard that as horrible e-mail form. The reprinted message is either unnecessary (because the reply makes the context clear) or useless (because the relevant portions aren’t highlighted). I avoid that format like the plague, yet such is pretty much what replying to an HTML message requires, unless I format manually.

Whatever the stupidity of Outlook, I wonder: What good reason does any person have for sending regular, everyday correspondence into HTML format? I can’t think of a single one. (If you need to insert fancy smileys into your messages, you have deeper problems.) Plain text is more than adequate. All that HTML does is unnecessarily complicate e-mail.

At least for me, the result is unfortunate. I just filed away a pleasant message from a friend without a reply, because I couldn’t manage the short “Excellent!” that I wished to say in response to just one part of his message. That’s hardly the first time that’s happened — and it annoys me.

So I admit that the above was something of a rant. Considering the problem more temperately, I would be interested to hear why people send HTML e-mail messages and whether I can fix Outlook to handle them better.

Positive Press

Jun 302005

I’m somewhat surprised — and even pleased — that Logan Darrow Clements’ proposal to use eminent domain to transform Justice Souter’s house into a hotel is receiving positive press from the mainstream media. Various people I respect (e.g. Gus) have expressed qualms in various fora about the proposal and its author. While I wouldn’t wish to endorse the author, I do regard the proposal as a brilliant way of showing the concrete, practical results of the majority opinion authored by David Souter, namely that no man is safe in his ownership of his home any longer. It’s quite just that David Souter ought to feel the effects of that loss of liberty sooner rather than later.

I am wrong? If so, I’m sure that the errors of my ways will be revealed for all to see in the comments.

"Is It Normal?"

Jun 302005

Be forwarned, this is potentially a colossal time-waster. “Is It Normal?

How it works:

1. Read the small story below.
2. Ask yourself “Is it normal?” and choose “Yes” or “No” in the green box.
3. See what others thought on the left. Repeat.

Example: “Sometimes I just stare at my hands and my wrists. The backs of my hands and how thin my wrists are and what colors they are and the veins and hairs and any scratches or marks. It just amazes me that these are my hands. I look at my fingernails and the folds of skin and the fingerprints… Does anyone else do this? Do you think it’s normal, or weird?”

Try it now. (Via Linkfilter.)

"Music Without Magic"

Jun 292005

I recently ran across this fascinating article on musical aesthetics, which was basically a defense of tonal music and a pointed (but justified) critique of the avante-garde atonal music popularized by Schonberg and his intellectual descendants. Here are some selected excerpts:

Let me emphasize immediately that the pleasing qualities of consonant chords and intervals, and the power of tonal relationships in general, are not arbitrary constructs. They were determined empirically, over the course of centuries. And they are firmly rooted in the laws of acoustical physics, with frequency ratios and a natural phenomenon called the harmonic series (or overtone series) playing vital roles. This is why Leonard Bernstein, in his 1973 Norton Lectures at Harvard University (published in book form as The Unanswered Question), devoted considerable time to a discussion of the harmonic series, and why he said, “I believe that from… Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal.” Or to put it another way, the origins of tonality lie not in a set of inventions and decisions but in the fundamental nature of sound.

To be clear: Tonal music contains lots of dissonance. If you were to string together all the dissonant chords in a piece by Bach (or Schubert or Tchaikovsky or any other composer of tonal music) with no other chords between, the effect would loosen your fillings. But the dissonances in tonal music are never strung together that way, because the specific function of dissonance in tonal music is to provide tension, and that tension, in whatever degree it is established, is always resolved by a return to consonance. Indeed, the true genius of the tonal system is that in any given piece it enables a composer to combine the power and momentum of harmonic progressions with the simultaneous manipulation of melodic material, in ways that create the impression of a narrative, a dramatic structure complete with characters, rhetoric, direction, conflict, tension, uncertainty, and ultimate resolution.

So, pleasing sounds, striking contrasts, coherent dramatic structures based on expressive musical elements that form clear (if sometimes complex) relationships and patterns — for more than 200 years this remarkable system served as the unquestioned foundation of Western music, the foundation on which the works of the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods were all built. From Vivaldi to Mahler, Bach to Verdi, Mozart to Mussorgsky, Beethoven to Faure, countless composers of every conceivable individual and national style shared the basic framework of tonality; they spoke what was essentially a common musical language. Is the enduring popularity of these composers’ works unrelated to that musical language? Is the still-central role of these works in our musical life an accident, a matter of chance or good public relations? No, and no. Is it fair to say that the powerful and perennial emotional appeal of tonal music reflects its extraordinary capacity to meet our oh-so-human musical expectations, to satisfy our longings for beauty, comfort, and meaning? Yes, indeed.

[With respect to the 20th century atonal music] …[I]t led ultimately to a 50-year modernist reign in the world of Western classical music, a reign in which to have any hope of being taken seriously by the critical and academic communities, composers were obligated, regardless of their specific styles and techniques, to avoid traditional tonal procedures and the comforts of consonance and to accept that dissonance was king.

Now, it’s true that we often add salt and hot spices to our food to enhance its flavor and heighten contrasts, and it’s important to remember that some people like their food much hotter and spicier than others. I should emphasize here — and I can’t emphasize strongly enough — that there are many contemporary composers, along with a host of not-so-contemporary composers, who have in varying degrees made use of 12-tone techniques and atonal procedures to write richly expressive and, indeed, powerfully moving and beautiful works…

It’s true as well that harsh elements can be a tool of great visual art, and that much great literature makes use of disturbing images or harrowing episodes, or both. But is there a chef on the planet who suggests swallowing a tablespoon of salt for an appetizer and following it with a bowl of Tabasco for an entree before washing it all down with a cup of vinegar? We know from listening to tonal music that dissonance can be wonderfully useful when it’s employed imaginatively. It can enhance and even create meaning. But in and of itself, dissonance is something that people fundamentally don’t like — that’s its very definition. When composers nonetheless demand that their listeners endure dissonance at great length and without letup, it’s hard not to see that demand as something spiteful, as evidence of a musical philosophy that is stubbornly aggressive, even hostile. And it’s easy to understand why that philosophy has never proved terribly popular with the concert-going public.

The primary proposition in defense of avant-garde music of the relentlessly dissonant and persistently unpopular variety has always been that, through exposure and familiarity, we often come to appreciate, and even love, things that initially confuse or displease us. Here what we might call “the Beethoven Myth” comes into play. “Beethoven was misunderstood in his time,” the argument goes, “but now the whole world recognizes his genius. I am misunderstood in my time, therefore I am like Beethoven.” This reasoning, unfortunately, has been the refuge of countless second- and third-rate talents. Beethoven ate fish, too. If you eat fish, are you like Beethoven? But there’s a much graver flaw in the argument: Beethoven was not misunderstood in his time. Beethoven was without doubt the most famous composer in the world in his time, and the most admired. And if there were those who didn’t “get” his late string quartets, for example, there were plenty of others who did, and who rapidly accepted the quartets as masterpieces. In fact, the notion that great geniuses in the history of music went unrecognized during their lifetimes is almost entirely false. It’s difficult to find an example of a piece we now consider a masterpiece that was not appreciated as such either while its composer was alive or within a relatively short period after his death…

Inevitably, however, we return to the fact that there’s something basic to human nature in the perception of “pleasing sounds,” and in the strength of the tonal structures that begin and end with those sounds. Blue has remained blue to us over the centuries, and yellow yellow, and salt has never started tasting like sugar. With or without physics, consonances are consonances because to most people they sound good, and we abandon them at great risk. History will say — history says now — that the 12-tone movement was ultimately a dead end, and that the long modernist movement that followed it was a failure. Deeply flawed at their musical and philosophical roots, unloving and oblivious to human limits and human needs, these movements left us with far too many works that are at best unloved, at worst detested.

The good news is that there are many composers today who, despite the uncertain footing, are striving valiantly, and successfully, to write works that are worthy of our admiration and affection. They write in a variety of styles, but the ones who are most successful are those who are finding ways — often by assimilating ethnic idioms and national popular traditions — to invest their music with both rhythmic vitality and lyricism. They’re finding ways to reconnect music to its eternal roots in dance and song. They’re also rediscovering, in many cases, the potential of tonal harmonies, and this seems like a positive step.

Although the author is not an Objectivist and I don’t agree with everything he says, there is much of value to Objectivists with an interest in musical aesthetics. Read the whole thing (original version or printer-friendly version). Via ALDaily.

An Unpromising Beginning

Jun 282005

This certainly turns the stomach:

What if Ayn Rand and Mussolini got together to write a Hollywood movie? The result would look something very like Batman Begins–the new blockbuster prequel to the Batman screen franchise.

Yup, that’s the opening line of this review of Batman Begins.

It’s a stupid review even apart from the Rand and Mussolini theme, but if you search the comments below it for “Rand” you’ll find a few funny little gems.

Explaining Grade Inflation

Jun 272005

Marginal Revolution recently linked to an interesting report on grade inflation by economist Mark Thoma. The data itself is fairly clear: Average GPAs stabilized in the ’70s and ’80s after a massive upward trend likely due to the Vietnam War draft. Then grades started drifting upwards again, for less obvious reasons, starting in the early ’90s. Thoma’s analysis of the data suggests an explanation that I’ve never heard before:

My study finds an interesting correlation in the data. During the time grades were increasing, budgets were also tightening inducing a substitution towards younger and less permanent faculty. I broke down grade inflation by instructor rank and found it is much higher among assistant professors, adjuncts, TAs, instructors, etc. than for associate or full professors. These are instructors who are usually hired year-to-year or need to demonstrate teaching effectiveness for the job market, so they have an incentive to inflate evaluations as much as possible, and high grades are one means of manipulating student course evaluations.

Even if younger teachers in fairly tenuous positions are largely responsible for the recent upward trend in grades, even a subconscious desire to bribe the students into good evaluations is hardly the only possible explanation for it. (I’m particularly skeptical given that evaluations are often done a week or two before the end of the semester, when students don’t yet know their final grade, but only their grades on early exams and/or papers.)

So here’s another possibility: Due to their lack of experience, newer teachers are less likely to have the skills required for doling out low grades, such as a finely-honed detector of student bullshit, a cultivated indifference to the self-created problems of irresponsible students, an adequate understanding of all that a diligent student is capable, confidence in the justice of the grades awarded, strategies for putting off pushy students, and so on. Those skills can be difficult to cultivate, even for teachers committed to actually educating their students. Of course, honest educators will develop them with time. In contrast, second-handers who primarily seek to be liked by their students, whether in exchange for high evaluations or not, will not.

The unpleasant results of the inexperienced teaching the lazy but demanding seems fairly evident in this Washington Post article on grade inflation. I suspect the real culprit has not yet been identified.

No Stockholm Syndrome For This Swede

Jun 272005

A Swede who had been held hostage in Iraq for 47 days has “hired bounty hunters to track down his former captors, promising to eliminate them one by one“. Ulf Hjertstrom told reporters, “I have now put some people to work to find these bastards,…I invested about $50,000 so far and we will get them one by one.”

If Iraq had a fully functioning, effective, rights-protecting government, I would not condone this sort of action. But given that it doesn’t, I don’t have the same sort of objections that I normally would. Or as Doc Holliday said of Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, “It’s not revenge he’s after. It’s a reckoning.” (Via Rand Simberg.)

In a related story, Douglas Wood (the Australian hostage who had been held captive by the same terrorists) recently called them “a**holes” during his press conference. In response, Andrew Jaspan (editor-in-chief of the Australian newspaper The Age), said that Wood’s remarks were “boorish” and “coarse”. According to Jaspan,

“The issue really is largely, speaking as I understand it, he was treated well there. He says he was fed every day, and as such to turn around and use that kind of language I think is just insensitive.”

I guess he thinks Wood should have sent the kidnappers a thank you note, instead. (Via Volokh.)

Medical Notes

Jun 262005

Fun medical humor, supposedly actual notes from medical records:

1. The patient refused autopsy.

2. The patient has no previous history of suicides.

3. Patient has left white blood cells at another hospital.

4. Patient’s medical history has been remarkably insignificant with only a 40 pound weight gain in the past three days.

5. She has no rigors or shaking chills, but her husband states she was very hot in bed last night.

6. Patient has chest pain if she lies on her left side for over a year.

7. On the second day the knee was better, and on the third day it disappeared.

8. The patient is tearful and crying constantly. She also appears to be depressed.

9. The patient has been depressed since she began seeing me in 1993.

10. Discharge status: Alive but without my permission.

11. Healthy appearing decrepit 69-year old male, mentally alert but forgetful.

12. Patient had waffles for breakfast and anorexia for lunch.

13. She is numb from her toes down.

14. While in ER, she was examined, x-rated and sent home.

15. The skin was moist and dry.

16. Occasional, constant infrequent headaches.

17. Patient was alert and unresponsive.

18. Rectal examination revealed a normal size thyroid.

19. She stated that she had been constipated for most of her life, until she got a divorce.

20. I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.

21. Both breasts are equal and reactive to light and accommodation.

22. Examination of genitalia reveals that he is circus sized.

23. The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.

24. Skin: somewhat pale but present.

25. The pelvic exam will be done later on this floor.

26. Large brown stool ambulating in the hall.

27. Patient has two teenage children, but no other abnormalities.

Lost Trivia

Jun 252005

While poking around on IMDB, I found this interesting little bit of Lost trivia:

Due to his childhood in America, Daniel [Dae Kim] knew very little Korean before he did “Lost”. He has said that his co-star on that show Yoon-jin Kim, who is fluent in both English and Korean, has been invaluable in coaching him on his Korean, which has apparently improved. Ironically, to the audience’s knowledge, Daniel’s character knows nothing but Korean.


Just in case I haven’t mentioned it before, Daniel Dae Kim is a pleasure to behold. If I were to channel Homer, I’d say: “He appears comely like a god amongst mere mortal men.” If I were to channel The Cure, I’d say: “Hot Hot Hot!”

Unexpected Creatures

Jun 242005

While biking around Sedalia, I expect to see horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, bison, and llamas, and so on. I don’t expect to see camels. So I was pretty surprised to see two of them in pasture on a recent bike ride. It was quite surreal, actually.

One was laying in the grass a few hundred feet off, while this friendly guy was near the fence by the road.

Although I’m not wholly certain of the division of property, they seem to be at Boomerang Farm, the former home of my two horses.

Home | Live Webcast | Archives | Blog | Question Queue | Connect | Support Us | About Us
Copyright 2012 Diana Hsieh | Email | Twitter | Facebook | Blog
Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha