Re-echoing that Mac/DOS piece

When I read Stephen Fry's first Saturday Guardian column (previous post), I took in the cross-reference to Umberto Eco's piece about the Mac/DOS:Catholic/Protestant parallelism but didn't follow it as I recalled having read it before. Then I saw friends bookmarking it and something made me check it out. What I recall reading (in October, 2005, it turns out — see Labyrinths and Internet) was something fuller — short of a full-length newspaper column but more than a clip.

I found it on the web in The Modern World and I see from the same site's page of Eco's writings that it says of this, the Mac/DOS piece: 'This ubiquitous work has, by now, found its way all across the Internet'. So there we are. And here it is, again.

The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS
by Umberto Eco

The following excerpts are from an English translation of Umberto Eco's back-page column, La bustina di Minerva, in the Italian news weekly Espresso, September 30, 1994.

A French translation may be seen here.

Friends, Italians, countrymen, I ask that a Committee for Public Health be set up, whose task would be to censor (by violent means, if necessary) discussion of the following topics in the Italian press. Each censored topic is followed by an alternative in brackets which is just as futile, but rich with the potential for polemic. Whether Joyce is boring (whether reading Thomas Mann gives one erections). Whether Heidegger is responsible for the crisis of the Left (whether Ariosto provoked the revocation of the Edict of Nantes). Whether semiotics has blurred the difference between Walt Disney and Dante (whether De Agostini does the right thing in putting Vimercate and the Sahara in the same atlas). Whether Italy boycotted quantum physics (whether France plots against the subjunctive). Whether new technologies kill books and cinemas (whether zeppelins made bicycles redundant). Whether computers kill inspiration (whether fountain pens are Protestant).

One can continue with: whether Moses was anti-semitic; whether Leon Bloy liked Calasso; whether Rousseau was responsible for the atomic bomb; whether Homer approved of investments in Treasury stocks; whether the Sacred Heart is monarchist or republican.

I asked above whether fountain pens were Protestant. Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It's an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach -- if not the kingdom of Heaven -- the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It's true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions: When it comes down to it, you can decide to ordain women and gays if you want to.

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. Can you use DOS and be a Vande supporter? And more: Would Celine have written using Word, WordPerfect, or Wordstar? Would Descartes have programmed in Pascal?

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic. The Jewish lobby, as always. ...

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Satire under the Nazis

Via the excellent Smashing Telly, Laughing With Hitler, originally on BBC Four and now on Google Video. It has its weaknesses, but if you're interested in satire you'll surely get a lot out of watching it. Much struck home — some of it amusing, plenty that was simply shocking:

  • Werner Finck ('The bad times are over, we now have a thousand year Reich to get through'; 'How odd: it's spring, but everything is turning brown') and his club, Die Katakombe — look around the 8 minute mark.
  • Traubert Petter and his performing chimps (c 28 minutes). The chimps were taught to give the Hitler salute (to the initial, stupid acclaim of party members — 'Even the monkeys greet us'), but then a party decree was issued banning apes from saluting the Führer. Traubert Petter was sent to serve on the Russian front (and survived).
  • Fritz Muliar (c 32 minutes) who at 21 wrote his last will and testament, thinking he would be sentenced to death for making jokes about Hitler. Instead, he endured five years of hard labour in a penal battalion in Russia: 'I thought I would never laugh again'.

  • Robert Dorsay (c 48 minutes): opponent of the Nazis, he was betrayed by a fellow actor and was executed on 29 October, 1943, for telling jokes and making defeatist remarks.
  • Dieter Hildebrandt (c 51/52 minutes): 'In those days you took a tiny hammer and hit a small bell and it went [loud, reverberating noise]. Today, you hit a huge bell with a huge hammer and it goes 'ping'.'

  • Fr Joseph Müller (c 52 minutes): parish priest of Groß Düngen, he was arrested (11 May, 1944) by the Gestapo. Appearing in the People's Court before Roland Freisler, he was found guilty, sentenced to the guillotine and was executed on 11 September, 1944 — for preaching Christian values and telling a joke about a dying soldier: 'Show me the people that I'm dying for', says the dying solider. A picture of Hitler and a picture of Göring are placed by him, one on each side. The soldier dies, saying, 'Now I shall die like Jesus Christ, between two criminals'.


Compound Security Systems of Wales makes the Mosquito teenager-repellent (which sounds like one of Private Eye's joke products):

The Mosquito ultrasonic teenage deterrent is the solution to the eternal problem of unwanted gatherings of youths and teenagers in shopping malls and around shops. The presence of these teenagers discourages genuine shoppers and customers’ from coming into your shop, affecting your turnover and profits. Anti social behaviour has become the biggest threat to private property over the last decade and there has been no effective deterrent until now. …

With an effective range of between fifteen and twenty meters Compound Security Devices field trials have shown that teenagers are acutely aware of the Mosquito and usually move away from the area within just a couple of minutes. The system is completely harmless even with long term use. …

It seems that there is a very real medical phenomenon known as presbycusis or age related hearing loss which, according to The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, "begins after the age of 20 but is usually significant only in persons over 65". It first affects the highest frequencies (18 to 20 kHz) notably in those who have turned 20 years of age". It is possible to generate a high frequency sound that is audible only to teenagers.

Now, the tables have been turned:

Some students are downloading a ring tone off the internet that is too high-pitched to be heard by most adults. With it, high schoolers can receive text message alerts on their cell phones without the teacher knowing. … The ring tone is a spin-off of technology that was originally meant to repel teenagers -- not help them.

There are some lessons here for the learning …

Instructions for downloading the ringtone are currently on Compound's main page, so it appears they're profiting from selling both a "teen deterrent" (a product which raises a lot of issues) and a teen-only-audible ringtone that will play well in class. Ka-ching!

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Stephen Colbert, satirist supreme

I remember Ian Hislop once saying how he had tried to take a satirical programme (a version of Spitting Image?) to the States, only to be met there with disbelief: 'You mean you want to make fun of the President?'. Which makes the performance of Stephen Colbert at the White House Correspondents' Dinner the more remarkable.

Thanks to Tom Coates ( for these links: a clip of some highlights (this may have been taken down; at least, it's not running right now — has CSPAN paid them a YouTube visit?); a BitTorrent link to a movie of the evening; an Editor & Publisher piece about the speech.

Botherer covered it well:

… what wasn’t reported in the UK and elsewhere, disturbingly including the USA, was the main speaker for the evening, Stephen Colbert. Currently riding high with the success of his excellent Daily Show spin-off, The Colbert Report (pronounced “Colbert Report”), the honour of giving the main speech at the dinner, which is intended to poke fun at the president, was his. From the reaction it seems no one was quite expecting what Colbert had to say.

In character, he addressed the audience from the perspective of his programme, ironically adopting a Fox News-like stance in order to make a mockery of it. Throughout, Bush was sat two chairs to his right.

“Now, I know there are some polls out there saying this man has a 32% approval rating. But guys like us, we don’t pay attention to the polls. We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in “reality.” And reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

Salon, too:

Make no mistake, Stephen Colbert is a dangerous man -- a bomb thrower, an assassin, a terrorist with boring hair and rimless glasses. It's a wonder the secret service let him so close to the President of the United States.

But there he was Saturday night, keynoting the year's most fawning celebration of the self-importance of the DC press corps, the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Before he took the podium, the master of ceremonies ominously announced, "Tonight, no one is safe."

To my friends and colleagues teaching satire: teach this! There's a transcript of Colbert's speech at Daily Kos (excerpt below) and, in addition to the Torrent link above, you can download the full video at these links: Part 1, Part 2. It is compelling, very sharp and very funny.

I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world. …

And I just like the guy. He's a good Joe. Obviously loves his wife, calls her his better half. And polls show America agrees. She's a true lady and a wonderful woman. But I just have one beef, ma'am.

I'm sorry, but this reading initiative. I'm sorry, I've never been a fan of books. I don't trust them. They're all fact, no heart. I mean, they're elitist, telling us what is or isn't true, or what did or didn't happen. Who's Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was built in 1914? If I want to say it was built in 1941, that's my right as an American! I'm with the President, let history decide what did or did not happen.

The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will. As excited as I am to be here with the President, I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News. Fox News gives you both sides of every story: the President's side, and the Vice-President's side.

But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the President makes decisions. He's the decider. The Press Secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the Press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!

Because really, what incentive do these people have to answer your questions, after all? I mean, nothing satisfies you. Everybody asks for personnel changes. So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, "Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!

You can leave a thank-you-Stephen-Colbert message here. There's a good Flickr photo from the evening here. And if you use Firefox and haven't yet got the Video Downloader extension, it's here.

Update! Inside Google reports:

The Google Video blog posts on how they’ve come to an agreement with C-SPAN to show the content, and agreement YouTube apparently failed (or never tried) to make. You have three options: You can watch the entire 1 hour, 35 minute video of the dinner, or stick to an 11 minute excerpt of President Bush and Bush impersonator Steve Bridges, or go for the 25 minute excerpt of Steven Colbert’s speech. Of course, if you want to enjoy Colbert’s biting remarks, make sure you quit about 16:45 in, because the press conference/chase segment is as tragically unfunny as it gets.

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Be it Frank Zappa specials, such as I am the Slime and Mike Nesmith and Frank Zappa on 'The Monkees', or Captain Beefheart — Lick my decals off, baby … or the loftier heights of The Hearts of Age (Orson Welles) and Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren), YouTube is going to become compulsive viewing. (All links via, the first three via Merlin Mann, the last two via Warren Ellis.)

Wikipedia on The Hearts of Age:

The Hearts of Age is the first film made by Orson Welles. The film is a four-minute short, which he co-directed with William Vance in 1934. The film stars Welles' first wife, Virginia Nicholson, as well as Welles himself. He made the film while attending the Todd School for Boys, in Woodstock, Illinois, at the age of 19. The plot is a series of images loosely tied together, and is arguably influenced by surrealism. The film is rarely seen today, but many point to it as an important precursor to Welles' first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane.

Meshes of the Afternoon, to my shame, is a discovery. Better now than never. Wikipedia here. An Uruguayan site here (Spanish). (Both these links via absurdita, who uploaded the film to YouTube.) IMDb entry here.

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The last week has been too busy for much blogging, so … some catching up.

One thing that caught my eye a while back was David Heinemeier's (37 Signals) posting about meetings — and their frequent lack of value. A nod of recognition here to Mike's magic beans send-up of this, but I do believe that many meetings are a waste of time: they're often held out of a sense of what's required (the due process) and are often allowed to run for far too long and with too little purpose. I like David's bulletpoints contra meetings:

  • They break your working day into small, incoherent pieces on a schedule incompatible with the natural breaks in your flow
  • They are normally all about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or a screen of design)
  • They usually contain an abysmal low amount of information conveyed per minute
  • They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • They drift off subject easier than a rear-wheel driven Chicago cab in heavy snow
  • They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what its about
  • They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway

David linked back to a Guardian article (which appeared in January), reporting on research conducted by Alexandra Luong and Steven G Rogelberg and published (March 2005) in the journal, Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice. The summary of the report on the APA Journals site runs:

Meetings are an integral part of organizational life; however, few empirical studies have systematically examined the phenomenon and its effects on employees. By likening work meetings to interruptions and daily hassles, the authors proposed that meeting load (i.e., frequency and time spent) can affect employee well-being. For a period of 1 week, participants maintained daily work diaries of their meetings as well as daily self-reports of their well-being. Using hierarchical linear modeling analyses, the authors found a significant positive relationship between number of meetings attended and daily fatigue as well as subjective workload (i.e., more meetings were associated with increased feelings of fatigue and workload).

The Guardian article was by Marc Abrahams. (He edits the Annals of Improbable Research and organises the Ig Nobel Prize.) It's an amusing read about something we all know is true, even if the "experiment" conducted by Luong and Rogelberg seems to have used such a tiny number of subjects as to look like a good example of 'improbable research'. 37. (37? Is there a joke running here …?)

In my experience, people who put faith in meetings often rate process over the messiness of practice. This is a good place for me to bookmark Ross' initial post, The End of Process, Euan's comment there (which he also posted afterwards, here) and Euan's excellent, later posting, More on process.

By the way: most of last week was not spent in meetings, and the two conferences I attended (I'll post about these shortly) were certainly not a waste of time.

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Graffiti, not comments?

This takes the prize:

Wow, the internet is a messy place. Like most of you I got here through the Radiohead website, and I will also treat this post like graffiti.

What I would say is that if Web 2.0 means anything, it had better sort out this comment/presence/'I woz here and smiled'/'I woz here and frowned'/etc problem. You just can't conduct anything approximating to a "normal" conversation via a blog's comments -- it's all so hit, miss, infrequent and entirely dependent upon making the effort to go back and see what's happened. Too many strands, too. Graffiti's quite a good alt term for what goes on a lot of the time. Graffiti's good.

As I said before ...

(And I hope not everyone is coming here via Colin's referral … I have some regulars, surely … But thank you for that great graffiti, Chas.)

++ let's hear it for chaos (hear, hear) and conversation.

Paparazzi, Pavarotti

Ben Trott writes about K-Fed's Pavarotti/paparazzi "confusion" (is it deliberate?). This reminds me of a son of a friend, attempting to get across London in a taxi cab the week of Princess Diana's death. As the cab got bogged down again in the traffic jams caused by the thousands of people out on the streets, mourning Princess Di, my friend's son made a move many of us … er, avoid, and asked the cabbie what he made of it all:

Oh it's terrible. I mean, what a terrible way to go, being chased across Paris by a dozen Pavarottis.