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Friday, August 11, 2006

Surreal Rules

The difficulties of fighting in an absurdly complicated region.

By Victor Davis Hanson

Prior to September 11, the general consensus was that conventional Middle East armies were paper tigers and that their terrorist alternatives were best dealt with by bombing them from a distance — as in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, east Africa, etc. — and then letting them sort out their own rubble.

Then following 9/11, the West adopted a necessary change in strategy that involved regime change and the need to win “hearts and minds” to ensure something better was established in place of the deposed dictator or theocrat. That necessitated close engagements with terrorists in their favored urban landscape. After the last four years, we have learned just how difficult that struggle can be, especially in light of the type of weapons $500 billion in Middle East windfall petroleum profits can buy, when oil went from $20 a barrel to almost $80 over the last few years. To best deal with certain difficulties we’ve encountered in these battles thus far, perhaps the United States should adopt the following set of surreal rules of war.

1. Any death — enemy or friendly, accidental or deliberate, civilian or soldier — favors the terrorists. The Islamists have no claim on morality; Westerners do and show it hourly. So, in a strange way, images of the dead and dying are attributed only to our failing. If ours are killed, it is because those in power were not careful (inadequate body armor, unarmored humvees, etc), most likely due to some supposed conspiracy (Halliburton profiteering, blood for oil, wars for Israel, etc.). When Muslim enemies are killed, whether by intent or accidentally, the whole arsenal of Western postmodern thought comes into play. For the United States to have such power over life and death, the enemy appears to the world as weak, sympathetic, and victimized; we as strong and oppressive. Terrorists are still “constructed” as “the other” and thus are seen as suffering — doctored photos or not — through the grim prism of Western colonialism, racism, and imperialism.

In short, it is not just that Western public opinion won’t tolerate many losses; it won’t tolerate for very long killing the enemy either — unless the belligerents are something akin to the white, Christian Europeans of Milosevic’s Serbia, who, fortunately for NATO war planners in the Balkans, could not seek refuge behind any politically correct paradigm and so were bombed with impunity. Remember, multiculturalism always trumps fascism: the worst homophobe, the intolerant theocrat, and the woman-hating bigot is always sympathetic if he wears some third-world garb, mouths anti-Americanism, and looks most un-European. To win these wars, our soldiers must not die or kill.

2. All media coverage of fighting in the Middle East is ultimately hostile — and for a variety of reasons. Since the 1960s too many reporters have seen their mission as more than disinterested news gathering, but rather as near missionary: they seek to counter the advantages of the Western capitalist power structure by preparing the news in such a way as to show us the victims of profit-making and an affluent elite. Second, most fighting is far from home and dangerous. Trash the U.S. military and you might suffer a bad look at a well-stocked PX as the downside for winning the Pulitzer; trash Hezbollah or Hamas, and you might end up headless on the side of the road. Third, while in a southern Lebanon or the Green Zone, it is always safer to outsource a story and photos to local stringers, whose sympathies are usually with the enemy. A doctored photo that exaggerates Israeli “war crimes” causes a mini-controversy for a day or two back in the States; a doctored photo that exaggerates Hezbollah atrocities wins an RPG in your hotel window. To win these wars, there must be no news of them.

3. The opposition — whether an establishment figure like Howard Dean or an activist such as Cindy Sheehan — ultimately prefers the enemy to win. In their way of thinking, there is such a reservoir of American strength that no enemy can ever really defeat us at home and so take away our Starbucks’ lattes, iPods, Reeboks, or 401Ks. But being checked in “optional” wars in Iraq, or seeing Israel falter in Lebanon, has its advantages: a George Bush and his conservatives are humiliated; the military-industrial complex learns to be a little bit more humble; and guilt over living in a prosperous Western suburb is assuaged. When a Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton — unlike a Nixon, Reagan, or Bush — sends helicopters or bombs into the Middle East desert, it is always as a last resort and with reluctance, and so can be grudgingly supported. To win these wars, a liberal Democrat must wage them.

4. Europeans have shown little morality, but plenty of influence, abroad and here at home during Middle East wars. Europeans, who helped to bomb Belgrade, now easily condemn Israel in the skies over Beirut. They sold Saddam his bunkers and reactor, and won in exchange sweetheart oil concessions. Iran could not build a bomb without Russian and European machine tools. Iran is not on any serious European embargo list; much of the off-the-shelf weaponry so critical to Hezbollah was purchased through European arms merchants. And if they are consistent in their willingness to do business with any tyrant, the Europeans also know how to spread enough aid or money around to the Middle East, to ensure some protection and a prominent role in any postwar conference. Had we allowed eager Europeans to get in on the postbellum contracts in Iraq, they would have muted their criticism considerably. To win these wars, we must win over the Europeans by ensuring they can always earn a profit.

5. To fight in the Middle East, the United States and Israel must enlist China, Russia, Europe, or any nation in the Arab world to fight its wars. China has killed tens of thousands in Tibet in a ruthless war leading to occupation and annexation. Russia leveled Grozny and obliterated Chechnyans. Europeans helped to bomb Belgrade, where hundreds of civilians were lost to “collateral damage.” Egyptians gassed Yemenis; Iraqis gassed Kurds; Iraqis gassed Iranians; Syrians murdered thousands of men, women, and children in Hama; Jordanians slaughtered thousands of Palestinians. None received much lasting, if any, global condemnation. In the sick moral calculus of the world’s attention span, a terrorist who commits suicide in Guantanamo Bay always merits at least 500 dead Kurds, 1,000 Chechnyans, or 10,000 Tibetans. To win these wars, we need to outsource the job to those who can fight them with impunity.

6. Time is always an enemy. Most Westerners are oblivious to criticism if they wake up in the morning and learn their military has bombed a Saddam or sent a missile into Afghanistan — and the war was begun and then ended all while they were sleeping. In contrast, 6-8 weeks — about the length of the Balkan or Afghanistan war — is the limit of our patience. After that, Americans become so sensitive to global criticism that they begin to hate themselves as much as others do. To win these wars, they should be over in 24 hours — but at all cost no more than 8 weeks.

Silly, you say, are such fanciful rules? Of course — but not as absurd as the wars now going on in the Middle East.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

'Mass Murder' Foiled

A terror plot is exposed by the policies many American liberals oppose.

Americans went to work yesterday to news of another astonishing terror plot against U.S. airlines, only this time the response was grateful relief. British authorities had busted the "very sophisticated" plan "to commit mass murder" and arrested 20-plus British-Pakistani suspects. As we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11 without another major attack on U.S. soil, now is the right moment to consider the policies that have protected us--and those in public life who have fought those policies nearly every step of the way.

It's not as if the "Islamic fascists"--to borrow President Bush's description yesterday--haven't been trying to hit us. They took more than 50 lives last year in London with the "7/7" subway bombings. There was the catastrophic attack in Madrid the year before that left nearly 200 dead. But there have also been successes. Some have been publicized, such as a foiled plot to poison Britain's food supply with ricin. But undoubtedly many have not, because authorities don't want to compromise sources and methods, or because the would-be terrorists have been captured or killed before they could carry out their plans.

In this case the diabolical scheme was to smuggle innocent-looking liquid explosive components and detonators onto planes. They could then be assembled onboard and exploded, perhaps over cities for maximum horror. Multiply the passenger load of a 747 by, say, 10 airliners, and this attack could have killed more people than 9/11. We don't yet know how the plot was foiled, but surely part of the explanation was crack surveillance work by British authorities.

"This wasn't supposed to happen today," a U.S. official told the Washington Post of the arrests and terror alert. "It was supposed to happen several days from now. We hear the British lost track of one or two guys. They had to move." Meanwhile, British antiterrorism chief Peter Clarke said at a news conference that the plot was foiled because "a large number of people" had been under surveillance, with police monitoring "spending, travel and communications."

Let's emphasize that again: The plot was foiled because a large number of people were under surveillance concerning their spending, travel and communications. Which leads us to wonder if Scotland Yard would have succeeded if the ACLU or the New York Times had first learned the details of such surveillance programs.

And almost on political cue yesterday, Members of the Congressional Democratic leadership were using the occasion to suggest that the U.S. is actually more vulnerable today despite this antiterror success. Harry Reid, who's bidding to run the Senate as Majority Leader, saw it as one more opportunity to insist that "the Iraq war has diverted our focus and more than $300 billion in resources from the war on terrorism and has created a rallying cry for international terrorists."

Ted Kennedy chimed in that "it is clear that our misguided policies are making America more hated in the world and making the war on terrorism harder to win." Mr. Kennedy somehow overlooked that the foiled plan was nearly identical to the "Bojinka" plot led by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to blow up airliners over the Pacific Ocean in 1995. Did the Clinton Administration's "misguided policies" invite that plot? And if the Iraq war is a diversion and provocation, just what policies would Senators Reid and Kennedy have us "focus" on?

Surveillance? Hmmm. Democrats and their media allies screamed bloody murder last year when it was leaked that the government was monitoring some communications outside the context of a law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. FISA wasn't designed for, nor does it forbid, the timely exploitation of what are often anonymous phone numbers, and the calls monitored had at least one overseas connection. But Mr. Reid labeled such surveillance "illegal" and an "NSA domestic spying program." Other Democrats are still saying they will censure, or even impeach, Mr. Bush over the FISA program if they win control of Congress.

This year the attempt to paint Bush Administration policies as a clear and present danger to civil liberties continued when USA Today hyped a story on how some U.S. phone companies were keeping call logs. The obvious reason for such logs is that the government might need them to trace the communications of a captured terror suspect. And then there was the recent brouhaha when the New York Times decided news of a secret, successful and entirely legal program to monitor bank transfers between bad guys was somehow in the "public interest" to expose.

For that matter, we don't recall most advocates of a narrowly "focused" war on terror having many kind words for the Patriot Act, which broke down what in the 1990s was a crippling "wall" of separation between our own intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. Senator Reid was "focused" enough on this issue to brag, prematurely as it turned out, that he had "killed" its reauthorization.

And what about interrogating terror suspects when we capture them? It is elite conventional wisdom these days that techniques no worse than psychological pressure and stress positions constitute "torture." There is also continued angst about the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, even as Senators and self-styled civil libertarians fight Bush Administration attempts to process them through military tribunals that won't compromise sources and methods.

In short, Democrats who claim to want "focus" on the war on terror have wanted it fought without the intelligence, interrogation and detention tools necessary to win it. And if they cite "cooperation" with our allies as some kind of magical answer, they should be reminded that the British and other European legal systems generally permit far more intrusive surveillance and detention policies than the Bush Administration has ever contemplated. Does anyone think that when the British interrogate those 20 or so suspects this week that they will recoil at harsh or stressful questioning?

Another issue that should be front and center again is ethnic profiling. We'd be shocked if such profiling wasn't a factor in the selection of surveillance targets that resulted in yesterday's arrests. Here in the U.S., the arrests should be a reminder of the dangers posed by a politically correct system of searching 80-year-old airplane passengers with the same vigor as screeners search young men of Muslim origin. There is no civil right to board an airplane without extra hassle, any more than drivers in high-risk demographics have a right to the same insurance rates as a soccer mom.

The real lesson of yesterday's antiterror success in Britain is that the threat remains potent, and that the U.S. government needs to be using every legal tool to defeat it. At home, that includes intelligence and surveillance and data-mining, and abroad it means all of those as well as an aggressive military plan to disrupt and kill terrorists where they live so they are constantly on defense rather than plotting to blow up U.S.-bound airliners.

As the time since 9/11 has passed, many of America's elites have begun to portray U.S. government policies as a greater threat than the terrorists themselves. George Soros and others have said this explicitly, and their political allies in Congress and the media have staged a relentless campaign against the very practices that saved innocent lives this week. We doubt that many Americans who will soon board an airplane agree.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Head Start on the Future of High-Def

HIGH-TECH projects often take longer to complete than anticipated; just ask Microsoft’s Windows team.

But it seems as if we’ve been hearing about high-definition video since the Eisenhower administration. The Federal Communications Commission’s mandatory cutoff of old-fashioned analog TV broadcasts, now scheduled for 2009, has been delayed, what, 500 times?

Part of the holdup is the extent and expense of the switch to the new, better-looking format. To achieve HDTV nirvana, you have to replace every element of your video setup: the TV set, cable box, DVD player, DVD movie collection — and even your camcorder.

Next month, Canon will release the world’s smallest and least expensive high-definition tape camcorder, a one-handable beauty called the HV10. Its list price is $1,300. As any gadget freak can tell you, however, that’s an inflated, fanciful figure provided for — well, for no good reason. The online price, once the camcorder is on store shelves, will be lower.

The HV10 is not the first high-def consumer camcorder by any means; Sony began blazing this path at the beginning of 2005. In fact, Sony’s third HD camcorder, not counting pro models, has been available for months: the HC3 ($1,500 list price; under $1,200 online), the previous price and size champ.

As Canon rolls out its HV10, Sony’s HC3 seems to be squarely in its cross hairs. Both camcorders produce video in the 1080i format, which you can edit in Apple’s iMovie or many Windows programs (Premiere, Vegas, PowerDirector and so on). Both have built-in, automatic lens caps but lack headphone and microphone jacks.

Both are HDV camcorders, which means that they record onto standard, easy-to-find, inexpensive MiniDV cassettes. The eyepiece viewfinder is immobile and nonextendable on both. And both cameras are so compact, the other parents at the baseball game will have absolutely no clue that you’re filming in high definition.

OF course, they’ll also have no idea that you paid more than $1,000 for your camcorder, compared with as little as $300 for a standard-def model — at least until they see the result on a high-definition TV.

That’s when they’ll see what all the fuss is about. The clarity, color fidelity and detail of good high-def video is absolutely astonishing, and its wide-screen shape makes even home movies look like Hollywood movies. With four times the resolution of a standard TV picture, high-def movies look like the view out a window.

This image-quality business, as it turns out, is the new Canon’s specialty. Talk about being blown away the first time you play back your recordings — let’s hope you have a sturdy couch.

Several advances are responsible for the brilliant picture quality. First, Canon has paid extra attention to two of the most important aspects of HD recording: focus and stability. Because the high-def picture is so sharp and so wide, moments of blurriness or hand-held jitters are far more noticeable and disturbing than in regular video.

So the front of the HV10 bears a special external sensor that, when you change your aim, handles the bulk of the refocusing extremely rapidly. A standard through-the-lens focusing system does the fine tuning after that. Together, these two mechanisms nearly eliminate the awkward moment of blurry focus-hunting that mars other camcorders’ output. (Take care to avoid covering the focus sensor with your fingers as they wrap around this vertically oriented, chunky camera.)

The HV10 also aims to iron out camera shake with a true optical stabilizer. A gyroscope inside the lens mechanism sends real-time feedback to the sensor itself, resulting, Canon says, in a more stable picture than you’d get from electronic stabilizers like the one in Sony’s HC3.

In practice, the Canon’s stabilizer works fantastically when you’re zoomed out; if you use two hands, the picture is indistinguishable from a tripod shot. As you zoom in, however, camera shake becomes more noticeable; at the 10X maximum, keeping the video rock-solid requires either a tripod or nerves of steel.

Now, depending on where the Canon’s street price winds up, Sony’s HC3 may be slightly more expensive. But it offers some goodies that the Canon lacks: a minutes-remaining readout for the battery; a “nightshot” mode for filming in total blackness, infrared-style; and an accessory shoe for video lights and microphones (proprietary Sony accessories only).

The Sony model also has an HDMI jack. HDMI is a single cable that carries high-definition video and audio — a common, extremely convenient connector on high-def equipment. Connecting the Canon to a high-def TV, on the other hand, requires plugging in five connections: left and right audio, and three component-video jacks.

But the Canon offers some perks of its own. In addition to its superior stabilizer and focusing system, it does better in low light, with fewer of the dancing, grainy pixels that mar the HC3’s dim-setting work. It also has a built-in video light that’s a real help — at least within interview range — at nighttime parties, postconcert wrap-ups and “Blair Witch”-style memos to posterity.

Neither camera takes very good still photos. But for what it’s worth, the Canon’s photo-shutter button works even while you’re filming. When you consider how often you might want both stills and video in life — the wedding kiss, the baseball swing, the diploma handshake — this is a great feature.

The Canon even counts to 10 every time you begin filming — a small “1 sec, 2 sec” counter appears on the very bright, very sharp flip-out screen. It’s an ingenious idea because it alerts you, even more effectively than the red REC dot, to when you are, and are not, recording.

Finally, the HV10 can convert all your old analog video, like VHS and 8-millimeter tapes, into digital form (not high definition), for ease in computer editing and reassurance in longevity.

The HV10’s only serious drawback, in fact, is one that it shares with recent Sony models (including the HC3): a really pathetic wide-angle view. Even at the most zoomed-out setting, these camcorders are zoomed in, if that makes any sense; in camera terms, its zoom range is 43 to 436 millimeters. Fitting a whole six-foot person into the frame involves backing up 15 feet, which often puts you into the street, the sea or the restroom.

Now, you could argue that it’s too soon to be buying any high-def camcorder. How, for example, will you show off your finished high-definition masterpieces? High-def DVD recorders are still on the drawing boards, and high-def VCR’s are an expensive oddity. At the moment, the only way to play back your high-def work is to connect the camcorder to your TV.

But the world’s eventual switch to high definition is inevitable. Meanwhile, time is passing. If anything is worth filming, isn’t it worth filming in the best possible quality starting right now? (My infant son, for example, had the good sense to take his very first steps while I was rolling with a high-def camcorder. I’ll always be grateful for that piece of video.)

True, a high-def camcorder is still much more expensive than a standard-def one. But if that’s not an obstacle, remember that you’re actually buying two camcorders in one; you can film in either standard or high-definition video on the same tape. And you can play back either kind of video on either kind of TV set, too (standard or HDTV), which makes these camcorders exceptionally versatile.

In the meantime, by entering the high-def camcorder market a year and a half after its rivals, Canon has played the same conservative waiting game it once used with digital cameras and camcorders. Its goal, of course, is to watch and learn as the pioneers get all the arrows in their backs.

If the HV10 is any indication, the company is off to a very good start.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Red State Jews


This is a soul-searching moment for the Jewish left. Actually, for many Jewish liberals, navigating the gloomy politics of the Middle East is like walking with two left feet.

I would know. For six years I was the literary editor of Tikkun magazine, a leading voice for progressive Jewish politics that never avoided subjecting Israel to moral scrutiny. I also teach human rights at a Jesuit university, imparting the lessons of reciprocal grievances and the moral necessity to regard all people with dignity and mutual respect. And I am deeply sensitive to Palestinian pain, and mortified when innocent civilians are used as human shields and then cynically martyred as casualties of war.

Yet, since 9/11 and the second intifada, where suicide bombings and beheadings have become the calling cards of Arab diplomacy, and with Hamas and Hezbollah emerging as elected entities that, paradoxically, reject the first principles of liberal democracy, I feel a great deal of moral anguish. Perhaps I have been naïve all along.

And I am not alone. Many Jews are in my position -- the children and grandchildren of labor leaders, socialists, pacifists, humanitarians, antiwar protestors -- instinctively leaning left, rejecting war, unwilling to demonize, and insisting that violence only breeds more violence. Most of all we share the profound belief that killing, humiliation and the infliction of unnecessary pain are not Jewish attributes.

However, the world as we know it today -- post-Holocaust, post-9/11, post-sanity -- is not cooperating. Given the realities of the new Middle East, perhaps it is time for a reality check. For this reason, many Jewish liberals are surrendering to the mindset that there are no solutions other than to allow Israel to defend itself -- with whatever means necessary. Unfortunately, the inevitability of Israel coincides with the inevitability of anti-Semitism.

This is what more politically conservative Jews and hardcore Zionists maintained from the outset. And it was this nightmare that the Jewish left always refused to imagine. So we lay awake at night, afraid to sleep. Surely the Arabs were tired, too. Surely they would want to improve their societies and educate their children rather than strap bombs on to them.

If the Palestinians didn't want that for themselves, if building a nation was not their priority, then peace in exchange for territories was nothing but a pipe dream. It was all wish-fulfillment, morally and practically necessary, yet ultimately motivated by a weary Israeli society -- the harsh reality of Arab animus, the spiritual toll that the occupation had taken on a Jewish state battered by negative world opinion.

Despite the deep cynicism, however, Israel knew that it must try. It would have to set aside nearly 60 years of hard-won experience, starting from the very first days of its independence, and believe that the Arab world had softened, would become more welcoming neighbors, and would stop chanting: "Not in our backyard -- the Middle East is for Arabs only."

It is true that Israel has entered into peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that have brought some measure of historic stability to the region. But with Israel having withdrawn from Lebanon and Gaza, and with Israeli public opinion virtually united in favor of near-total withdrawal from the West Bank, why are rockets being launched at Israel now, why are their soldiers being kidnapped if the aspirations of the Palestinian people, and the intentions of Hamas and Hezbollah, stand for something other than the total destruction of Israel? And if Palestinians and the Lebanese are electing terrorists and giving them the portfolio of statesmen, then what message is being sent to moderate voices, what incentives are there to negotiate, and how can any of this sobering news be recast in a more favorable light?

The Jewish left is now in shambles. Peace Now advocates have lost their momentum, and, in some sense, their moral clarity. Opinion polls in Israel are showing near unanimous support for stronger incursions into Lebanon. And until kidnapped soldiers are returned and acts of terror curtailed, any further conversations about the future of the West Bank have been set aside.

Not unlike the deep divisions between the values of red- and blue-state America, world Jewry is being forced to reconsider all of its underlying assumptions about peace in the Middle East. The recent disastrous events in Lebanon and Gaza have inadvertently created a newly united Jewish consciousness -- bringing right and left together into one deeply cynical red state.

Mr. Rosenbaum, a novelist and professor at Fordham Law School, is author, most recently, of "The Myth of Moral Justice" (HarperCollins, 2004).

Luscious, at last!

Cooks, rejoice: After all the crazy weather, the best of summer is here.

August 9, 2006

FOR most of us, this crazy summer weather has been an inconvenience, a matter of being a little uncomfortable. For farmers, it has wreaked havoc with their livelihoods.

It's easy to forget that, now that we're standing smack in summer's sweet spot, produce-wise. Walk through the farmers market and the bounty is astonishing: piles of peaches and nectarines, mounds of melons, tomatoes of every color, eggplants, squashes, cucumbers and all kinds of berries.

For cooks, this is one of the best times of the year, with ingredients so good you hardly have to do anything to make a delicious meal. But for the farmers who grew all of it, this summer has been one of the most challenging in memory.

"You know how it always is with farmers: It's too hot, then it's too cold; it's too wet, then it's too dry," says Maryann Carpenter of Santa Monica farmers market favorite Coastal Farms. "But I've never seen anything like this year."

Still, Carpenter can't resist popping open one of her few flats of heirloom tomatoes — mostly Cherokee Purples, with a few Evergreens and Pineapples as well. "But look how pretty these are," she says. "Aren't they beautiful?"

Last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger even asked for the federal government for disaster relief assistance.

Weather woes

THE year started with an unseasonably mild winter, which was followed by an unseasonably cool and rainy spring, which gave way almost immediately to scorching temperatures hotter than California has seen in many years.

In such heat, herbs and lettuces bolt from tender seedlings to tough, seed-producing adults within days. Plants stressed by the weather are even more susceptible to predation by pests and disease. Tender fruit like tomatoes and grapes and delicate greens and herbs get sunburned.

And though heat is necessary for ripening fruit, when there's too much, plants go into survival mode and shut down, dropping fruit and blossoms in some cases and slowing the ripening process to a crawl in others.

Of course, the heat also affects humans: Because of the scorching temperatures, many farms shortened work days so their crews were done by 2 p.m., slowing and in some cases reducing the harvest.

Many vegetables, including tomatoes and peppers, are at least two weeks behind schedule; some are much more. Fruit varieties we usually see earlier in summer, such as Elegant Lady peaches, are just now being picked.

"Where do I begin?" asks Molly Gean of Harry's Berries. "We drowned and then we baked."

The good news is that the worst of the weather seems to be behind us and that means the floodgates of the produce market are swinging wide open.

Quality has improved drastically, even in the last couple of weeks. Earlier in the year, produce like tomatoes, peaches and nectarines seemed a little short in flavor — they just hadn't gotten enough sun. Lack of heat certainly hasn't been a problem for a while.

Of course, you still need to shop carefully. Tender berries go soft in the heat — check the underside of the box for signs of leaking juice, and then be sure to use them within a day or two. Avoid lettuces that are browning at the tips or appear coarse and overly mature. Watch for tomatoes with soft shoulders.

Squash tends to grow like crazy during the heat; remember to pick the slimmest, which will have fewest seeds, and the ones with the most tender skin.

Stone fruit are so delicate that they are almost bound for mishap, especially with tricky growing conditions. Pass on any that show signs of brown rot, a serious problem in hot and humid weather.

On the other hand, a slightly bruised peach or nectarine can still be delicious, but it will need to be pared back. And sunburn or other cosmetic flaws rarely go more than skin deep.

One of the best things about summertime cooking is that with basic ingredients this good, you don't really need to fancy them up.

What do I love best about this time of year? It's hard to tell where to begin. I feel like a surprise Oscar winner who stands at the podium stammering, unable to start his thank-yous because he knows he'll leave out the most important one.

Let's start with the most obvious: Every fruit and vegetable has something going for it, but for me, the two with real grandeur are peaches and tomatoes. When great, both of them have not only perfectly balanced sweetness and acidity, but also a deep, savory quality that is almost indescribable.

Plums and melons are not far behind in stature, but on opposite ends of the flavor spectrum. To my taste, the best plums are those that are almost bracingly sour while the best melons are so sweetly floral and honeyed they almost make your teeth hurt.

When you've got stuff this good, simply slice it and serve it.

Culinary soul mates

EGGPLANTS and peppers are filling market stalls now. They may come from different continents, but they are so intertwined in my kitchen that I think of them as culinary soul mates. Both of them are spectacular off the grill, needing nothing but a little olive oil and garlic.

That's the way summer cooking goes. Got green beans? Blanch them and toss them with olive oil and lemon juice. Corn? It's at the peak of its season. Grill it in the husk and finish it with flavored butter (maybe whip in a little lime and cilantro, and then chill it into a solid log).

Berries are enjoying their last couple of weeks, and though they can be a little soft from the summer heat, they seem even more perfumed than before. Meanwhile, figs and grapes are beginning to come into their prime. By the time the berries are done, these will be in full swing and ready to take their place.

And wait, what about summer squash? Surely you don't need another way to cook zucchini, do you? How about this: Simmer it until tender, then purée it in a blender with a cooked potato, some garlic and a little cream. Finish it with a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

As you can see, none of these dishes call for any extravagant ingredients. In fact, given the quality of the produce we're getting, even the humblest of additions can seem delicious.

One thing that always seems to be in abundance in my kitchen during the summer is stale bread, and you can't get much humbler than that. Maybe it's the heat, maybe it's the humidity, but a loaf left on the counter even overnight often seems to have gotten stiff and stale by dinner the next day. At that point it's not rock hard yet, but it's certainly not good enough for slicing and serving. Still, it does make a wonderful ingredient for summer dishes.

It's the kind of cooking that used to be called economical, not in the sense of being cheap, but in the way of making the most of everything that's available to you.

A secret ingredient

FOR something that we usually throw away, stale bread has many uses. In fact, it's the secret behind some of summer's best dishes. Use stale bread as a thickener for cold, raw vegetable soups such as gazpacho. This allows you to add some texture to the soup without cooking it or adding a lot of fat.

Soak the bread in water to soften it, then squeeze it well. Purée it in a blender with the rest of the ingredients, and the bread vanishes, leaving behind only a silky texture.

This is an old trick with tomatoes, but there's no reason it can't be used for other vegetables. Purée cucumbers with soaked bread and some yogurt and you get a lovely celadon-colored soup that captures the best flavors of a cucumber salad in a new form. Adding fresh sorrel leaves underlines the yogurt's tang.

You can also use stale bread to flesh out dishes, extending flavors and allowing them to mingle and become more complex. A tomato salad is delicious by itself, but when you add stale bread it takes on another dimension.

Again, soak the bread and squeeze it almost dry. While the bread is soaking, salt the chopped tomatoes, dress them and set them aside to macerate. The salt will draw the juices from the tomatoes and intensify the flavor. But rather than making the dish soupy, those juices will be captured by the bread, spreading the rich tomato flavor through the dish.

You can even use stale bread in place of pastry for fruit desserts. Line a bowl with slices of bread (I like to do this with brioche or another egg-enriched bread). Fill the center with peaches and berries that you have warmed in a pan, and then refrigerate overnight with a plate pressing down on the fruit.

The bread will absorb all of the sweet juice that has been squeezed from the fruit and will become saturated with flavor.

Serve this summer pudding cold, cut into slices that show the cross-section of the fruit, and accompany it with only lightly sweetened yogurt or whipped cream to set off the flavors.

These recipes should be considered more as outlines for dishes rather than specific prescriptions. Delicious as they are, they can still be altered to fit your taste and what you happen to have on hand.

Play around with the choice of vegetables in the bread salad — maybe use chopped cucumbers, maybe add some torn basil leaves or maybe mint.

Use the same free hand with the summer pudding — the original is wonderful made with different kinds of berries — but maybe plums would be good too?

Sure, it's been a tough summer so far, but the fun is just beginning.


Bread salad with tomatoes and arugula

Total time: 30 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: Use the best-tasting tomatoes you can find, whether they're heirlooms, cherry tomatoes or any other type.

1/3 pound stale ciabatta, or other artisan-style bread

1 pound tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black


3 tablespoons red wine


1/2 cup olive oil

3/4 cup diced red onion

3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

3 ounces arugula (about 5 or 6 good handfuls)

1. Tear the ciabatta into rough pieces and put it in a bowl with water to cover. Soak for at least 15 minutes.

2. Cut cherry tomatoes in halves or quarters, depending on their size. Cut heirloom or other large tomatoes into three-quarter-inch slices, then cut the slices into quarters. Place them in a bowl and season with the salt, pepper, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Set aside for at least 15 minutes to allow the salt to pull some of the juice from the tomatoes.

3. Pull the bread from the bowl a handful at a time and squeeze out as much water as you can. Crumble the bread into a serving bowl. Stir the tomato mixture into the bread, working the mixture to moisten as much of the bread as possible with the liquid from the tomatoes. Stir in the red onion. (The recipe can be prepared to this point up to 8 hours ahead and refrigerated, tightly covered.)

4. When ready to serve, remove the bread salad from the refrigerator and taste it. You may need to add more salt or more vinegar. Add the pine nuts and arugula to the bread salad and toss lightly to mix thoroughly. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 296 calories; 4 grams protein; 19 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 23 grams fat; 3 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 547 mg. sodium.


Cucumber gazpacho

Total time: 20 minutes, plus refrigeration time

Servings: 6

Note: Dark, thin-peel Persian cucumbers are best for this recipe. You can use other thin-peel cucumbers, but the color won't be as pretty. If you use regular slicing cucumbers, peel them and remove the seeds.

8 ( 1/2 -inch thick) slices stale


2 pounds cucumbers

1 1/2 ounces sorrel leaves, stems removed

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon salt

4 cups lowfat yogurt, plus more for garnish

1. Tear the baguette into rough pieces and put the pieces in a bowl with water to cover. Soak for at least 15 minutes.

2. Coarsely chop the cucumbers and place them in a blender in batches. Chop most of the sorrel leaves, reserving two for garnish. Add the sorrel leaves to the blender with the garlic, salt and yogurt, and purée until smooth.

3. Remove the bread from the water and squeeze dry. Add the bread to the blender and purée the mixture until perfectly smooth. Pour it through a strainer into a deep bowl, discarding any bits of bread caught in the strainer. The soup should be slightly thickened, about the texture of heavy cream. Cover the bowl tightly and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

4. To serve, season the soup to taste with more salt if necessary and ladle it into wide bowls. Use a large spoon to swirl in a streak of yogurt. Thinly slice the reserved sorrel leaves and scatter a few slices across the top of the soup.

Each serving: 171 calories; 11 grams protein; 24 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 3 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 10 mg. cholesterol; 620 mg. sodium.


California summer pudding

Total time: 25 minutes, plus 12 hours chilling time

Servings: 6 to 8

3/4 pound brioche, challah or egg bread

1 1/2 pounds peaches

3/4 pound blackberries

1/2 cup sugar

3 tablespoons brandy

1. Trim the crusts from the bread and if it has not been sliced, cut it in roughly one-third-inch slices. Stack the slices and cut them in half diagonally to make triangles.

2. Line a 6-cup mold or bowl with plastic wrap, fitting the wrap tightly into the corners. Make sure you have a plate small enough to fit just inside the rim of the bowl. If not, cut a stiff cardboard circle that will fit and wrap it in aluminum foil (to be used in Step 6).

3. Piece together the bread slices in a single layer so they completely line the bowl. There should be no gaps, but the fit doesn't have to be exact — wherever the bread overlaps, simply press the edges together tightly. Trim the bread where it comes over the top of the bowl.

4. Cut a shallow "X" in the base of each peach, and then dunk the peaches in rapidly boiling water until you see the peel start to come loose at the cut — about 20 seconds to 1 minute, depending on the ripeness of the fruit. Remove the peaches from the water and rinse under cold running water. The peels should slip off easily; if they don't, return the fruit briefly to the boiling water. Pit the peaches and cut them into chunks.

5. Combine the peaches, blackberries and sugar in a saucepan and warm over medium heat. Cook just until the fruit begins to soften and release its juice, 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the brandy.

6. Spoon the fruit into the bowl; there should be enough that it mounds a little above the lip. Place a sheet of plastic wrap loosely across the top, then place the plate or cardboard circle on top. Press gently and stack a heavy can on top (tomatoes work great). Refrigerate at least 12 hours.

7. When ready to serve, remove the plate and the top layer of plastic wrap. Place a serving plate on top of the bowl or mold and invert the bowl so the pudding will unmold onto the serving plate. If the pudding resists unmolding, hold the plastic wrap and jiggle gently until it does unmold cleanly. Remove the plastic wrap lining.

8. Serve immediately with lightly sweetened whipped cream or yogurt.

Each serving: 276 calories; 5 grams protein; 39 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 68 mg. cholesterol; 49 mg. sodium.

Is Copying a Crime? Well…

Many young people say that duplicating CDs or DVDs they own is legal. The industries disagree.
By Charles Duhigg
Times Staff Writer

August 9, 2006

A few years ago, when a friend offered 15-year-old Evan Collins a compact disc of illegally downloaded music, Collins turned him down flat.

"Me and my parents used to download music for free," said Collins, who lives in Bloomington, Minn. "But we decided it was like stealing from musicians. So I don't take stolen music from friends, either."

But later that year, when Collins met a girl he liked, he made her a CD filled with songs by Linkin Park, Blue Man Group and Eiffel 65. Why was his CD OK, while his friends' were verboten? Because Collins paid for his music in the first place, he said.

"I think you're allowed to make, like, two or three copies of a CD you bought and give them to friends," said Collins. "It's only once you make five copies, or copy a CD of stolen music, that it's illegal."

Actually, attorneys say, copying a purchased CD for even one friend violates the federal copyright code most of the time.

But Collins' attitude — that copying purchased CDs or DVDs is legal, while copying stolen music or movies is a crime — is pervasive among young people ages 12 to 24, according to a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll.

Among teens ages 12 to 17 who were polled, 69% said they believed it was legal to copy a CD from a friend who purchased the original. By comparison, only 21% said it was legal to copy a CD if a friend got the music free. Similarly, 58% thought it was legal to copy a friend's purchased DVD or videotape, but only 19% thought copying was legal if the movie wasn't purchased.

Those figures are a big problem for the Recording Industry Assn. of America and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, both of which have spent millions of dollars to deter copying of any kind. The music industry now considers "schoolyard" piracy — copies of physical discs given to friends and classmates — a greater threat than illegal peer-to-peer downloading, according to the RIAA.

Similarly, an MPAA spokesperson said that, in the U.S., copying and reproducing DVDs is a bigger problem than illegal downloading of movies.

"We've made substantial progress educating people that downloading copyrighted music for free is illegal," said RIAA Chairman Mitch Bainwol. "But we still confront a significant challenge educating kids that copying a CD for a friend is also a crime. This is a major focus for the entire industry."

Indeed, years of anti-downloading campaigns seem to be working: 80% of teens surveyed in the poll said downloading free music from unauthorized computer networks was a crime. Much of that might stem from highly publicized crackdowns on online music sharing. A 2004 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that close to 6 million Americans said they had stopped downloading unauthorized tunes because of lawsuits filed by the RIAA.

But when it comes to stopping people from copying physical CDs, high-profile lawsuits are much less likely to occur. Prosecutors say it would be next to impossible to get one teen to testify in court that another had slipped him or her a copied disc at lunchtime. And besides, isn't sharing music a time-honored part of teen friendship?

"It's pretty confusing," said Collins, who was interviewed after participating in the poll.

Even lawyers say the law is hard to understand. Distributing free copies of a purchased CD or DVD is only a federal copyright crime if the value of the copied discs exceeds $1,000, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Elena Duarte.

But giving away even one copied disc may be a civil violation or break a state law.

"A strict interpretation of the law says that if making a copy robs the marketplace of a sale, it is prohibited," said attorney Mark Radcliffe, a copyright expert at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. "So anyone giving a copy to a friend could technically be sued. But there is some sentiment that as long as people are only giving copies to families and a few friends, it's probably OK. But how many friends should one person have?"

In the last decade, copyright activists and entertainment companies have battled over that very question. Courts have generally avoided commenting on the appropriateness of copying CDs for friends or how many friends constitutes a copyright violation. But music and film companies have argued that any sharing violates the copyright code.

However, free-speech advocates say the copyright laws were never intended to stop kids from giving mix-CDs to friends. In fact, some say, because music is as much about personal expression as listening pleasure, sharing is integral to why songs have value in the first place.

"At my wedding I handed out about 150 mix-CDs," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, an associate professor at New York University and author of "Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity."

"I was freeloading on songs by Louis Armstrong and others, but I think that's why they became musicians in the first place," Vaidhyanathan said. "Music has worth because it lets us communicate in ways we can't manage on our own. But to communicate, we have to be able to share."

Some of those polled agree. While 97% of teens and adults polled said they considered shoplifting an item worth less than $20 a crime, fewer of them (83% of teens, 76% of young adults) considered it a crime to buy a bootlegged CD. (In fact, according to Duarte, although selling a bootleg violates the law, purchasing it is not prohibited by the federal copyright code.)

"I rely on my instinct to determine what's right and wrong about sharing music," said Annette Cook, a 21-year-old senior at San Diego State University who participated in the poll. "If my friend makes me a copy of a CD they purchased, it's not really stealing, it's spreading interest in a band. That's how I learn about music I end up buying."

The RIAA and MPAA hopes that attitude will wane. To that end, the recording industry association is sponsoring school programs to convince students that any kind of copying — what they call "songlifting" — is a crime. "Songlifting is like shoplifting, and that means it's wrong," reads a lesson plan the group sent to middle school teachers. The motion picture industry's trade association is also sponsoring school programs to discourage piracy.

Their efforts may be working. Younger poll respondents were more likely than older peers to believe that copying CDs and DVDs breaks the law, and only 25% of teens said they had a friend who illegally downloaded music, compared with 33% of young adults.

"One of my friends always gives me a blank CD for my birthday, and then I go to her house and pick out songs to burn on it," said Charlie Letson, 14, a poll respondent in Hampton, Conn. "But we always download new copies of the songs, so that we're not breaking the law."

Even Evan Collins, the 15-year-old from Minnesota, is beginning to reconsider his position. After the mix-CD he made to woo a classmate failed to impress ("She said 'thanks,' but that was about it," he said), he started rethinking his attitude about copying CDs.

"I used to make two copies of each CD I bought for friends, but I think I'm going to stop doing that," said Collins, who was speaking within earshot of his mother. "I play the piano and the trumpet, so I understand what it's like to be a musician. I don't think it's right to gyp anyone out of making money."

That, says Collins' mother, is music to her ears.

"We've tried to use CD copying to teach bigger lessons about morality," said Jill Collins, 47. "Things are so different now. The Internet makes the world a lot more complicated. If we can get right and wrong down on small things like copying music, hopefully bigger things will be clearer down the road."



Is it stealing?

Younger consumers see strong differences between copying and outright stealing.

Proportion of young people who thought the following would be committing a crime: (Combined minor and serious crime)
Ages12-14 15-17 18-20 21-24
Copying a CD from
a friend who paid for it 27% 35% 33% 38%
Copying a DVD/videotape
from friend who paid for it 39% 44% 40% 41%
Downloading free music
from an unauthorized
file-sharing server 79% 81% 70% 79%
Downloading free movies
from an unauthorized
file-sharing server 83% 83% 74% 79%
Buying a bootlegged CD 82% 84% 76% 76%
Buying a bootlegged
DVD/videotape 83% 84% 80% 77%
Shoplifting an item
worth less than $20 97% 97% 98% 96%
Shoplifting an item
worth more than $20 99% 99% 99% 97%

Q: Where or how did you first find out about the music you most

recently acquired? (Multiple answers allowed, selected answers shown.)
Ages 12-17 Ages 18-24
Heard a song or interview on
the radio 57% 57%
A friend recommended /
played it for me / lent it
to me 47% 40%
Saw a music video or
advertisement on TV 33% 30%
Music website: MTV, iTunes,
Yahoo Music, etc. 23% 13%
Brother or sister 20% 14%
My parents 15% 4%
Heard it on a TV show
(such as "The O.C.") 15% 8%
Heard about it on an online
social site, such as MySpace, etc. 12% 5%
Read a review in a magazine or
Newspaper 5% 6%

Q: How would you describe the type of music you are most passionate about? (One answer, selected answers shown.)


Ages 12-14

Rock: 23%

Pop: 6%

Rap/hip-hop: 25%

Country: 3%

My music tastes range across genres: 27%



Ages 15-17

Rock: 23%

Pop: 1%

Rap/hip-hop: 27%

Country: 6%

My music tastes range across genres: 29%



Ages 18-20

Rock: 21%

Pop: 1%

Rap/hip-hop: 23%

Country: 12%

My music tastes range across genres: 34%



Ages 21-24

Rock: 21%

Pop: 0%

Rap/hip-hop: 21%

Country: 11%

My music tastes range across genres: 31%



Ages 12-14

Rock: 12%

Pop: 14%

Rap/hip-hop: 21%

Country: 4%

My music tastes range across genres: 31%



Ages 15-17

Rock: 13%

Pop: 8%

Rap/hip-hop: 28%

Country: 6%

My music tastes range across genres: 33%



Ages 18-20

Rock: 16%

Pop: 4%

Rap/hip-hop: 19%

Country: 7%

My music tastes range across genres: 42%



Ages 21-24

Rock: 12%

Pop: 5%

Rap/hip-hop: 18%

Country: 10%

My music tastes range across genres: 39%


Note: More information on this poll can be found at:


How the poll was conducted

The Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll was conducted from June 23 to July 3 using the Knowledge Networks' Web-enabled panel, which provides a representative nationwide sample of U.S. households. Of the 4,466 minors and young adults invited to participate in the survey, 1,904 (43%) responded to the survey, with 1,650 qualifying. The 1,650 qualified respondents included 839 minors (ages 12 to 17) and 811 young adults (ages 18 to 24). The margin of sampling error for both groups is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In order to provide as representative a sample as possible, the survey results were weighted to U.S. census figures for 12- to 24-year-olds in the United States in terms of age, race or ethnicity, gender and region, and for urban or rural residence and Internet access.

Source: Times/Bloomberg poll


The Entertainment Poll


A new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll finds that a large majority of 12- to 24-year-olds are bored with their entertainment choices. Their solution? Even more options. Plus: Busting myths about teens and young adults.



The old Hollywood movie model doesn't interest younger audiences. They want to see films as soon as they come out at home — whether on TV, computer or the next new gadget.



Within the music industry, copied CDs are considered a greater threat than illegal peer-to-peer downloading. But young people are confused about where sharing ends and piracy begins in the era of iTunes.



Is new technology the answer for TV and video? Teens and young adults — the generation most likely to be the early adopters of this new technology — have yet to fully embrace it.



A day in the life of a typical plugged-in tween. Plus: Does multi-tasking hurt homework?


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Rising Cost of Living Well

Do long lines for Frappuccinos really explain Starbucks' disappointing results?
By Daniel Gross
Posted Monday, Aug. 7, 2006, at 4:40 PM ET

In the past few years, analysts have noted the phenomenon of Two Americas Shopping. Retailers that cater to the working class (Wal-Mart, Dollar General, Burger King) have seen sales grow below the pace of the economy at large while those that cater to yuppies, bobos, food snobs, extreme consumers, and dandies—in short, the better-off—have thrived.
But now, even as the ultrarich continue to shop as if money grows on trees, there's mounting evidence that rising inflation, slow wage growth, and higher energy prices are pinching the upper-middle class. In recent weeks, several of the publicly held companies that cater to the mass affluent have reported disappointing results.

Last Thursday, Starbucks announced its results for the most recent quarter and for July. The results were generally fine, but they failed to meet caffeinated expectations. Same-store sales, the ultimate metric for any retailer, rose only 4 percent in July—a rate significantly below what investors were expecting. Starbucks came up with a strange excuse: Because of the heat, lots of people ordered Frappuccinos. And because it takes a long time to whip up the blended drinks, the demand created long lines, which in turn forced jonesing professionals to seek their fix elsewhere. (Blogger/analyst/investor Barry Ritholtz has a graphical representation of this phenomenon here.) Starbucks' stock fell 8 percent on the day.

Intuitively, the excuse makes some sense. But Starbucks' disappointment was hardly an isolated event. Whole Foods, which is to groceries what Starbucks is to coffee—an expensive, upper-middlebrow global do-gooder—also reported earnings last week. At first glance, the results were impressive. Same-store sales growth was 9.9 percent in the quarter. But that was below last year's rate (15.2 percent) and below the average for the last five fiscal years (11.2 percent). And Wall Street was further disappointed that the company ratcheted down expectations for sales growth. Fretting that there may be some limit to the number of Americans willing to pay $7 for a head of organic broccoli, investors filleted, pounded, and sautéed the stock: It fell 11 percent last Monday.

Restaurants that cater to the type of people who take their coffee at Starbucks and shop at Whole Foods have also been feeling the pain. P.F. Chang's, which serves up tasty, deracinated Chinese food in shopping centers around the country, reported a dismal quarter in late July. Worse, the company projected that same-store sales at both its "dining concepts"—P.F. Chang's China Bistro and Pei Wei Asian Diner—would fall in the second half of 2006.

It could be, of course, that people are simply making more coffee and cooking more meals at home. But then they'd be buying lots more espresso machines and woks. Only they're not. Last month, Williams-Sonoma, the leading purveyor of yuppie kitchen utensils and accessories, lowered its earnings guidance, saying same-store growth in the second quarter would be between 1.5 percent and 3 percent.

What gives? For years, betting on the ability and willingness of high-end consumers to spend was a winning formula for both retailers and investors. The ranks of the mass affluent were growing, their wallets filled thanks to tax cuts and rising home values. And thanks to the phenomenon of trading up, plenty of people on the lower rungs of the income ladder were splurging on things they were passionate about: golf clubs or shoes, for example. Now the powerful trend seems to be going in the opposite direction. Well-off consumers are reining in spending, and there is likely to be a growing phenomenon of consumers trading in steaks at Morton's for Whoppers at Burger King. As the Wall Street Journal reported, "Burger King Chief Executive John Chidsey told investors during a conference call that the Miami-based chain is benefiting from a slowdown in spending at sit-down restaurants that is prompting some consumers to trade down to fast-food chains." Investors are clearly worried that America is going downscale. Here's a three-month chart of Starbucks, Williams-Sonoma, P.F. Chang's, and Whole Foods against the S&P 500.

Clearly, the bite of inflation, rising interest rates, slow wage growth, low savings, and higher prices is starting to work its way up the income ladder. After all, people with higher incomes pretty much spend everything they make, too. In fact, there's a degree to which upper-crust consumers could be feeling the pinch disproportionately. Depending on where they live, how they work, and what they spend, consumers experience inflation differently. Someone who takes a subway to work won't feel the pain of rising gas prices, while someone who drives a pickup 70 miles to work each day certainly will. A person who takes a loan to buy a gas-guzzling power boat will find that the cost of buying and operating the boat has gone up dramatically; someone who buys a kayak made in China will find that the price of boating is falling.

Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg has examined the spending and consuming habits of his colleagues and clients on Wall Street and has created his own "Wall Street core inflation index," which tracks the rise in prices of the necessities of yuppie life: "jewelry, spas, lawn care, health care, sporting goods, housekeeping services, tuition, airlines, hotels, salons, legal/financial services, and dry cleaning." His conclusion: The price of spoiling yourself rotten is rising rapidly. "The Wall Street core CPI is running at 4%, nearly double what it is for Main Street," he wrote in a report on July 28.

In other words, forget about the heat and the Frappuccinos. Sales at Starbucks and its sister high-end retailers may be faltering because the cost of living well is rising more rapidly than the overall cost of living.

Daniel Gross ( writes Slate's "Moneybox" column. You can e-mail him at

Alquileres: el Gobierno sigue creando problemas

Roberto Cachanosky

Una vez más, el Poder Ejecutivo vuelve a interferir en el sistema económico con el objetivo de controlar los precios. El resultado, como en casos anteriores, dista mucho de ser una solución y genera múltiples distorsiones en la economía.

¿Por qué causa suben los alquileres si la construcción de edificios para vivienda crece en forma acelerada? ¿Cómo puede ser que, ante tantos nuevos edificios, la nueva oferta no alcance para contener la suba en los alquileres?

Dado que la tasa de crecimiento de la población sigue siendo tan baja como siempre y tampoco tenemos una ola inmigratoria gigante, es evidente que la respuesta no la vamos a encontrar por este lado.

El primer gran problema que se presenta es que casi todos los nuevos edificios que se construyen apuntan a sectores de ingresos medios-altos. Con precios promedio que no bajan de los U$S 1.200 por metro cuadrado e ingresos en dólares que, en el mejor de los casos, pueden estar en los U$S 300 a U$S 400 por mes, es evidente que no son tantas las familias que pueden convalidar esos precios por metro cuadrado construido, porque con esos U$s 300 o U$S 400 mensuales la gente tiene que comer, viajar, vestirse, pagar la educación de sus hijos, entre otras múltiples cuestiones. En definitiva, la gran disparidad entre el precio del metro cuadrado construido y los salarios en dólares no hace más que reflejar la brutal concentración del ingreso que produce este modelo económico. Queda en evidencia, entonces, que la Argentina no se limita a Puerto Madero, Palermo Soho o la Recoleta, donde se construye intensamente. En primer lugar, entonces, la nueva oferta de vivienda apunta a los sectores de ingresos altos porque el modelo económico en marcha se basa en salarios muy bajos. La oferta trabaja para los sectores que pueden demandar. Si hacía falta un ejemplo de lo regresivo de este modelo económico, el tema alquileres lo ha confirmado.

El segundo elemento a considerar es que en los 90 el crédito hipotecario era lo suficientemente abundante como para que la gente pudiera pagar una cuota hipotecaria que era equivalente al precio de un alquiler. La opción alquiler versus cuota hipotecaria era claramente favorable a esta última alternativa. Por lo tanto, en los 90 disminuyó la demanda de propiedades para alquilar y el precio de los alquileres era bajo y la oferta, amplia.

Hoy, la oferta de créditos hipotecarios es escasa. Además, son muy pocos los que califican para acceder a un crédito hipotecario, dado que la relación ingreso/cuota hace que muchos no estén en condiciones de pagar una cuota hipotecaria. El resultado es que gente que antes podía comprar ahora tiene que alquilar y, en consecuencia, el precio de los alquileres sube. La demanda de propiedades en alquiler subió en forma explosiva dada la imposibilidad de la mayoría de la gente de poder comprar. Y como la oferta sólo crece para abastecer la demanda de los sectores de ingresos altos, surge el problema que hoy lo tiene tan ocupado a Guillermo Moreno. El “modelo productivo” ha creado las condiciones para que la inmensa mayoría de la población quede marginada de tener su vivienda propia.

Tenemos también otra pregunta que responder: ¿por qué los créditos hipotecarios son tan inaccesibles? Poco tiempo atrás, algunos medios oficialistas destacaban que la tasa de interés de los créditos hipotecarios es hoy más baja que la tasa que regía en los 90. Lo que no se encargaban de aclarar esos medios oficialistas es que la mayoría de los créditos hipotecarios son a tasa variable. Esto significa que, en un contexto inflacionario como el que tenemos (por más que el Gobierno se esfuerce por dibujar un Índice de Precios al Consumidor –IPC- menor al real), la gente tiene pavor de endeudarse porque sabe qué cuota empieza pagando pero no qué cuota terminará pagando dadas las expectativas inflacionarias. Es decir que, en primer lugar, la mayoría de la gente no califica para acceder a un crédito y, segundo, los pocos que lo hacen no se animan a endeudarse a tasa variable, temor que es perfectamente comprensible porque basta ver la evolución de las tasas de interés para darse cuenta de que quienes creen que las tasas subirán no se equivocan. Aun suponiendo que las tasas fueran bajas, los precios en dólares por metro cuadrado son tan altos que la gente no puede juntar el adelanto y, si lo junta, después tiene que pedir una suma extraordinaria para pagar el saldo que quedaría a los valores vigentes.

¿Qué solución “brillante” encontró Moreno frente al problema de los alquileres? Sentarse a conversar con inmobiliarias, dueños de propiedades e inquilinos. Considerando que el mercado de alquileres está totalmente atomizado, ¿cuán representante de los inquilinos y de los dueños puede ser esa mesa convocada por Moreno?

Si los convocados no representan ni por casualidad a una parte razonable del universo de inquilinos y propietarios, lo que ha conseguido el señor Moreno no sólo es haber “conversado” al divino botón, sino que, lo que es peor, ha logrado espantar a la escasa oferta y perjudica todavía más a los inquilinos. En definitiva, Moreno ha logrado reducir más la oferta de viviendas metiéndose en un tema que ni por casualidad puede resolver, porque el problema se soluciona con mejores salarios, estabilidad en los precios, la reaparición del crédito hipotecario y abundante oferta de propiedades para alquilar. Y todo eso no se consigue con palabras, sino con políticas públicas de largo plazo. Eso de lo que tanto se habla y tan poco se respeta: respeto por las instituciones.

Mucho menos va a solucionarse el problema de los alquileres amenazando con obligar a los dueños de propiedades a informar a la AFIP sobre los contratos de alquileres que firmen. Es probable que con esta medida consigan blanquear unos pocos pesos, aunque es seguro es que nadie va a querer comprar una propiedad para alquilar y quedar atrapado en las manos de la AFIP.

Si el objetivo de Moreno es que desaparezca por completo la oferta de alquileres para que no exista precio y el INDEC ya no releve más incrementos en este rubro, el Secretario de Comercio está en camino de lograr el objetivo. Es decir, si lo que se busca es que el IPC no se mueve en este rubro al costo de dejar a la gente en la calle, el Gobierno va en la dirección correcta.

En definitiva, no debe sorprendernos el ruido que el Gobierno acaba de meterle al mercado de los alquileres dado que, como en muchos otros casos, las políticas que se aplican no apuntan a mejorar la calidad de vida de la población, sino a tratar de tener una evolución de los precios al consumidor que se adapte a las necesidades electorales.

Mientras el Gobierno se siga ufanando de los U$S 4.000 por metro cuadrado que se pagan en Puerto Madero como muestra de la pujanza y optimismo que hay en el país, millones de personas seguirán padeciendo el serio problema de la vivienda.

The New Gender Divide

Facing Middle Age With No Degree, and No Wife


Once, virtually all Americans had married by their mid-40’s. Now, many American men without college degrees find themselves still single as they approach middle age.

About 18 percent of men ages 40 to 44 with less than four years of college have never married, according to census estimates. That is up from about 6 percent a quarter-century ago. Among similar men ages 35 to 39, the portion jumped to 22 percent from 8 percent in that time.

At virtually every level of education, fewer Americans are marrying. But the decline is most pronounced among men with less education. Even marriage rates among female professionals over 40 have stabilized in recent years.

The decline in marriage can be traced to many factors, experts say, including the greater economic independence of women and the greater acceptance of couples living together outside of marriage.

For men without higher education, though, dwindling prospects in the labor market have made a growing percentage either unwilling to marry or unable to find someone to marry them.

Doug Thomas, 45, a computer technician with one year of college, has spent more of his adult life securing his financial footing than he has searching for a wife.

“I make enough where sure, I could get married, and sure, the girl would not have to work,” said Mr. Thomas, of Fort Collins, Colo.

But he worries what that would mean for the relationship and whether he and his wife would have time together. “Well, now you’re locked into working all those hours,” he said.

Jeff Enos, 40, a high school graduate and a construction foreman in Kenosha, Wis., said he dated several women at a time when he was younger, but having lived through his parents’ divorce, he wants to avoid a similar fate. That is one reason he has cautioned his girlfriend, with whom he lives, not to pressure him about marriage.

Perhaps most significant, many men without college degrees are not marrying because the pool of women in their social circles — those without college degrees — has shrunk. And the dwindling pool of women in this category often look for a mate with more education and hence better financial prospects.

“Men don’t marry because women like myself don’t need to rely on them,” said Shenia Rudolph, 42, a divorced mother from the Bronx.

In 1980, only 6 percent of men in their early 40’s at all levels of education and 5 percent of women in their early 40’s had never married. By 2004, this portion had increased to 16.5 percent of men and about 12.5 percent of women.

Of the men remaining single, the greatest number are high school dropouts, especially blacks and unemployed men. But marriage is also declining among white men and men with jobs who lack college degrees.

There is no conclusive evidence that marriage helps men. Still, some social scientists worry that not marrying may further marginalize men who are already struggling.

“It is a mistake to think of this as just happening to the underclass at the bottom,” said Christopher Jencks, a professor of sociology at Harvard. “It is also happening to people with high school diplomas or even some college. That is the group that has been most affected by the decline in real wages in the last 30 years.”

The course of Mr. Thomas’s life has been determined as much by his finances as by circumstance or his own character. He is a tall, athletic man with cropped, George Clooney-style hair who projects a kind and upbeat persona — surely a catch to some women in Fort Collins. Yet Mr. Thomas, who was laid off from Lockheed Martin as the electronics industry shifted jobs overseas, has experienced so much job insecurity that for most of his adult life, a stable economic foundation has eluded him.

It is only now, working for Hewlett-Packard, that he has been able to pay off debts and build a nest egg. The job, however, which pays about $56,000 a year, could end next year, leaving Mr. Thomas, who would like to begin a lower-paying career as a graphic designer, feeling a greater urgency to save.

One way he has cut costs is by giving up his expensive one-bedroom apartment. Two years ago, he rented a room in a town house from Anna Mahoney, a single woman four years his junior. They pool household purchases and buy in bulk. Their platonic friendship serves as a stand-in for their families, who live out of state.

Yet their domesticity has also bred a level of intimacy that can alienate romantic partners. Ms. Mahoney frequently refers to herself and Mr. Thomas as “we.” Mr. Thomas dutifully churns the oil in the jars of almond butter and takes out the garbage.

“She always says: ‘You’re going to be my roommate forever. Then when I get married, you’re going to live in my basement,’ ” Mr. Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘Pleeease. When you start dating, I’m going to be so out of there.’ ”

When Mr. Thomas fell in love last year and began bringing his girlfriend to the town house, Ms. Mahoney complained that his girlfriend, a 33-year-old dialysis technician, was sloppy. Meanwhile, his girlfriend objected to the time that he spent with Ms. Mahoney, Mr. Thomas said.

“It was a constant form of stress,” he said. The two had discussed moving in together, but the bickering made them wonder if it was a good idea. In February, after one year together, they broke up.

“I miss her horribly,” Mr. Thomas said quietly one recent Saturday after stopping at a health store to buy vitamins on Ms. Mahoney’s shopping list.

Pool of Potential Mates Shrinks

A quarter-century ago, when fewer women went to college, there was a plentiful supply of potential mates for men who had only a high school diploma. Even men who dropped out of high school could get blue-collar jobs paying decent wages and could expect to find, and support, a wife.

As women started climbing the educational ladder, first equaling and then surpassing men in college attendance and graduation rates, the pool of potential partners shrank.

At the same time, broad changes in the roles of men and women upended the traditional marriage contract in which the husband provided a paycheck in return for the wife’s housework and child care.

First, as more women joined the work force, they became less dependent on men’s earnings. More than 70 percent of women ages 25 to 54 are working today, up from about half of such women 30 years ago.

While women were gaining economic independence, wages were slumping in the blue-collar jobs that in the past allowed less-educated men to support a family. Women, largely employed in service industries more resilient than manufacturing, fared better.

Between 1979 and 2003, the earnings of men with a few years of college but no degree barely kept up with inflation, while those for women rose by 20 percent in real terms. For high school graduates with no college experience, men’s earnings declined 8 percent over the period, while women’s advanced 12 percent.

“In the past guys could drop out of school after finishing high school, or even without finishing, and go into a factory and get a steady job with benefits,” said Valerie K. Oppenheimer, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But there has been a deterioration in young men’s economic position, and women are hesitant to marry a man who is likely to be an economic dependent.”

Not all men have adjusted to the new dynamics of marriage and work, as women have gained greater clout and become more vocal about what they want from their mates. By 2001, wives earned more than husbands in almost one of four marriages in which both partners worked, compared with 16 percent in 1980.

“Changing women’s expectations about what married life should be like has put more tension into these relationships,” Mr. Jencks said. “Men who have graduated from college have been more responsive and ready to accommodate those changes than those who haven’t.”

Though many unmarried men and women do end up living together, cohabitation is a less stable arrangement. There is a 43 percent chance that a couple living together will split up within three years, compared with a 12 percent chance for a breakup of a first marriage in that time. “It’s more like a stopgap,” said Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

In 2005 there were nearly 5 million households of unmarried partners of the opposite sex, according to census estimates, up from 1.6 million in 1980. In 2004, 36 percent of babies were born to unmarried women.

As a response to some of these trends, many women with limited education have turned theirs sights on “marrying up,” choosing men who may be older, more established and more educated.

“Why would you want to be in a stable relationship with somebody who is unstable?” asked Ketny Jean-Francois, a never-married 30-something from the Bronx who has supported her 3-year-old son on her unemployment check and food stamps since leaving her job as a security guard a year ago. “It’s a myth that all women want to marry.”

Ms. Rudolph has sworn off blue-collar men. For a man to be marriage material, “you have to have a job; you have to be educated; you have your own apartment and a car,” she said. “Both have to contribute something.”

She speaks from experience. She married her high school boyfriend right after graduation, a 2-week-old baby in arms. But her husband, who never graduated, was unemployed for most of their marriage, and the couple broke up after six years.

Determined to find a man who had better prospects, Ms. Rudolph entered a relationship with a basketball player and had three children with him. It ended when she learned he was married to someone else, a revelation that left her badly shaken. “I don’t trust men to marry them,” she said.

Tax policy does not encourage poor couples to marry. At the lower end of the income scale, couples with two incomes face higher marginal tax rates if they marry. Couples can also lose federal dollars when marriage increases their household earnings above the threshold for welfare payments.

According to C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute, a single mother of two children who earns $15,000 a year gets an earned income tax credit of $4,100. If she marries a man making $10,000 a year, the benefit drops to $2,100.

David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers and a co-director of its National Marriage Project, argues that it is the men who are choosing to remain single. He says men do not marry because they do not want to. As unwilling to commit as ever, men have been let off the hook by more permissive social mores that have made it acceptable to live together and raise children out of wedlock.

Joe Callender, 47, a retired New York City corrections officer and a father of four, has had long-term relationships with two women but has never married. One obstacle, he admits, has been his own infidelity.

“Marriage, that’s sacred to me; I’m committed to you for the rest of my life, my last breath,” Mr. Callender said, describing his vision of the institution. “I’m not cheating, looking. Work, home, that’s it. It’s you and me against the world.”

Fears of Divorce

Relaxed mores have also encouraged more gay men to live openly homosexual lives. “I think this could be a minor factor but not a major one” in the decline of marriage, Professor Cherlin said. But it would not explain the gap between the educated and the less so. The percentage of college-educated men who marry has been relatively stable the last few years, while the marriage rate among college-educated women has actually ticked up.

For some men, living with a girlfriend is an attractive alternative given the possibility of a messy divorce. Many men fear that a former wife will take all their money. For blue-collar men, the divorce rate is twice that of men with college degrees.

“From the view of the male, there are pretty big reasons you would not marry,” Professor Popenoe said.

It was his parents’ divorce that showed Mr. Enos, the Wisconsin construction foreman, just how bitter a dissolution could be. Mr. Enos, a compact man with a shock of blond hair and a streak of independence who supported himself in high school by working on a pig farm, rarely saw his father after his parents’ split.

After high school, Mr. Enos joined the Marines. Once his service was complete, he moved back to Kenosha, only to witness another family dispute over his grandfather’s estate. Mr. Enos, who earns about $50,000 a year, lives in a small house bought with some money inherited from his grandfather, and keeps his distance from family.

He has vowed not to mix personal and legal affairs. He has worked too hard, he said, to lose his house and his savings if a marriage were to fail. “I told my girlfriend a long time ago: ‘Don’t pressure me. I don’t want to get married and then divorced,’ ” Mr. Enos said.

The same fear has lurked in Tom Ryan’s mind. Mr. Ryan, 54, an electronics specialist who lives outside Denver, bought his ranch house with a girlfriend over a decade ago. He had to buy out his girlfriend quickly when the relationship suddenly ended — or else lose his home.

His girlfriend, who had been with him for six years, had wanted to marry and have a child. But Mr. Ryan, who attended music college for a year and spent his 20’s singing in a local rock band, did not feel ready.

He loved her, he recalled one afternoon this summer, but was reluctant to settle down. After a decade of playing concerts (including a tour in Japan, a highlight), he had learned relatively late in life how to budget and save enough to pay a mortgage, a contributing factor.

Comfortable Being Alone

Mr. Ryan, who grew up without a father, learned how to be alone. A new girlfriend came along, but he was unwilling to let her move in as much as a toothbrush. They broke up. He went to a community college and got an associate’s degree in electronics. He renovated the basement. He built a soundproof recording room. He learned to enjoy the silence and the ability to be as fastidious at home as he pleased.

When he walks in the front door after a weekend trip or a run or a bike ride, he often puts a commemorative baseball cap on his coat rack, and now, about three dozen hats cover the rack, with no apparent space for a purse or a diaper bag.

“Later in life, will I miss the fact that I don’t have a little son or daughter around?” Mr. Ryan asked. “I probably will. But it’s not totally out of the question.”

For every man who fits into one of the categories of unmarried men put forth by social scientists — men who cannot commit, men who are afraid of divorce, men who have been forced to the edges of the economy — there is a man like Chris Cunningham of Staten Island.

Mr. Cunningham, 41, a sanitation worker, seems to defy any theory about why he is single. He has, he said, simply not met the right woman.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, and now assigned to an office job in Manhattan with the Department of Sanitation, Mr. Cunningham said he was undeterred by his parents’ divorce and was ready for marriage, having just ended a decade-long relationship going nowhere.

He makes a comfortable living at about $80,000 a year. He appears self-deprecating and sweet, and is clean-shaven (his head, too). Eager to have children of his own, he bought Christmas presents last year for several children in Milltown, N.J., where he often spends weekends with his best friend and neighboring couples.

With most of his friends paired off, and few single women in the Milltown clique, his dating life has stalled. “It’s funny,” he said one Saturday as adults mingled and children scampered with water toys at a block party. “You feel kind of like they met someone and got their lives started, and you’re still waiting for it to happen to you.”

Some social scientists have found that married men are healthier and earn slightly more than unmarried men. But it is unclear whether marriage produces higher incomes and better health, or whether people who are richer and healthier in the first place more often choose to marry.

Beyond the questions of finances and health, there is the issue of how content these men are. All the men interviewed for this article looked younger than their age. All said they were happy with their lives, even Mr. Cunningham, with his clear longing for a family of his own, and Mr. Thomas, of Fort Collins, who said he might move to Denver to meet more women.

Mr. Ryan, too, said he enjoyed being single. He stood talking in his kitchen on a Saturday when he had no plans other than a solo bike ride. It was a slow weekend day — his birthday, in fact — and though the phone never rang, he was free for dinner.

Friday, August 04, 2006


The Hive

Can thousands of Wikipedians be wrong? How an attempt to build an online encyclopedia touched off history’s biggest experiment in collaborative knowledge

by Marshall Poe

Several months ago, I discovered that I was being “considered for deletion.” Or rather, the entry on me in the Internet behemoth that is Wikipedia was.

For those of you who are (as uncharitableWikipedians sometimes say) “clueless newbies,” Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia. But it is like no encyclopedia Diderot could have imagined. Instead of relying on experts to write articles according to their expertise, Wikipedia lets anyone write about anything. You, I, and any wired-up fool can add entries, change entries, even propose that entries be deleted. For reasons I’d rather not share outside of therapy, I created a one-line biographical entry on “Marshall Poe.” It didn’t take long for my tiny article to come to the attention of Wikipedia’s self-appointed guardians. Within a week, a very active—and by most accounts responsible—Scottish Wikipedian named “Alai” decided that … well, that I wasn’t worth knowing about. Why? “No real evidence of notability,” Alai cruelly but accurately wrote, “beyond the proverbial average college professor.”

Wikipedia has the potential to be the greatest effort in collaborative knowledge gathering the world has ever known, and it may well be the greatest effort in voluntary collaboration of any kind. The English-language version alone has more than a million entries. It is consistently ranked among the most visited Web sites in the world. A quarter century ago it was inconceivable that a legion of unpaid, unorganized amateurs scattered about the globe could create anything of value, let alone what may one day be the most comprehensive repository of knowledge in human history. Back then we knew that people do not work for free; or if they do work for free, they do a poor job; and if they work for free in large numbers, the result is a muddle. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger knew all this when they began an online encyclopedia in 1999. Now, just seven years later, everyone knows different.

The Moderator

Jimmy Wales does not fit the profile of an Internet revolutionary. He was born in 1966 and raised in modest circumstances in Huntsville, Alabama. Wales majored in finance at Auburn, and after completing his degree enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Alabama. It was there that he developed a passion for the Internet. His entry point was typical for the nerdy set of his generation: fantasy games.

In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, two gamers who had obviously read The Lord of the Rings, invented the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. The game spread largely through networks of teenage boys, and by 1979, the year the classic Dungeon Master’s Guide was published, it seemed that every youth who couldn’t get a date was rolling the storied twenty-sided die in a shag-carpeted den. Meanwhile, a more electronically inclined crowd at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was experimenting with moving fantasy play from the basement to a computer network. The fruit of their labors was the unfortunately named MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). Allowing masses of players to create virtual fantasy worlds, MUDs garnered a large audience in the 1980s and 1990s under names like Zork, Myst, and Scepter of Goth. (MUDs came to be known as “Multi-Undergraduate Destroyers” for their tendency to divert college students from their studies.)

Wales began to play MUDs at Alabama in the late 1980s. It was in this context that he first encountered the power of networked computers to facilitate voluntary cooperation on a large scale. He did not, however, set up house in these fantasy worlds, nor did he show any evidence of wanting to begin a career in high tech. He completed a degree in finance at Auburn, received a master’s in finance at the University of Alabama, and then pursued a Ph.D. in finance at Indiana University. He was interested, it would seem, in finance. In 1994, he quit his doctoral program and moved to Chicago to take a job as an options trader. There he made (as he has repeatedly said) “enough.”

Wales is of a thoughtful cast of mind. He was a frequent contributor to the philosophical “discussion lists” (the first popular online discussion forums) that emerged in the late ’80s as e-mail spread through the humanities. His particular passion was objectivism, the philosophical system developed by Ayn Rand. In 1989, he initiated the Ayn Rand Philosophy Discussion List and served as moderator—the person who invites and edits e-mails from subscribers. Though discussion lists were not new among the technorati in the 1980s, they were unfamiliar territory for most academics. In the oak-paneled seminar room, everyone had always been careful to behave properly—the chairman sat at the head of the table, and everyone spoke in turn and stuck to the topic. E-mail lists were something altogether different. Unrestrained by convention and cloaked by anonymity, participants could behave very badly without fear of real consequences. The term for such poor comportment—flaming—became one of the first bits of net jargon to enter common usage.

Wales had a careful moderation style:

First, I will frown—very much—on any flaming of any kind whatsoever … Second, I impose no restrictions on membership based on my own idea of what objectivism really is … Third, I hope that the list will be more “academic” than some of the others, and tend toward discussions of technical details of epistemology … Fourth, I have chosen a “middle-ground” method of moderation, a sort of behind-the-scenes prodding.

Wales was an advocate of what is generically termed “openness” online. An “open” online community is one with few restrictions on membership or posting—everyone is welcome, and anyone can say anything as long as it’s generally on point and doesn’t include gratuitous ad hominem attacks. Openness fit not only Wales’s idea of objectivism, with its emphasis on reason and rejection of force, but also his mild personality. He doesn’t like to fight. He would rather suffer fools in silence, waiting for them to talk themselves out, than confront them. This patience would serve Wales well in the years to come.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

I n the mid-1990s, the great dream of Internet entrepreneurs was to create the entry point on the Web. “Portals,” as they were called, would provide everything: e-mail, news, entertainment, and, most important, the tools to help users find what they wanted on the Web. As Google later showed, if you build the best “finding aid,” you’ll be a dominant player. In 1996, the smart money was on “Web directories,” man-made guides to the Internet. Both Netscape and Yahoo relied on Web directories as their primary finding aids, and their IPOs in the mid-1990s suggested a bright future. In 1996, Wales and two partners founded a Web directory called Bomis.

I nitially, the idea was to build a universal directory, like Yahoo’s. The question was how to build it. At the time, there were two dominant models: top-down and bottom-up. The former is best exemplified by Yahoo, which began as Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web. Jerry—in this case Jerry Yang, Yahoo’s cofounder—set up a system of categories and began to classify Web sites accordingly. Web surfers flocked to the site because no one could find anything on the Web in the early 1990s. So Yang and his partner, David Filo, spent a mountain of venture capital to hire a team of surfers to classify the Web. Yahoo (“Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle”) was born.

Other would-be classifiers approached the problem of Web chaos more democratically. Beginning from the sound premise that it’s good to share, a seventeen-year-old Oregonian named Sage Weil created the first “Web ring” at about the time Yang and Filo were assembling their army of paid Web librarians. A Web ring is nothing more than a set of topically related Web sites that have been linked together for ease of surfing. Rings are easy to find, easy to join, and easy to create; by 1997, they numbered 10,000.

Wales focused on the bottom-up strategy using Web rings, and it worked. Bomis users built hundreds of rings—on cars, computers, sports, and especially “babes” (e.g., the Anna Kournikova Web ring), effectively creating an index of the “laddie” Web. Instead of helping all users find all content, Bomis found itself positioned as the Playboy of the Internet, helping guys find guy stuff. Wales’s experience with Web rings reinforced the lesson he had learned with MUDs: given the right technology, large groups of self-interested individuals will unite to create something they could not produce by themselves, be it a sword-and-sorcery world or an index of Web sites on Pamela Anderson. He saw the power of what we now call “peer-to-peer,” or “distributed,” content production.

Wales was not alone: Rich Skrenta and Bob Truel, two programmers at Sun Microsystems, saw it too. In June 1998, along with three partners, they launched GnuHoo, an all- volunteer alternative to the Yahoo Directory. (GNU, a recursive acronym for “GNUs Not Unix,” is a free operating system created by the über-hacker Richard Stallman.) The project was an immediate success, and it quickly drew the attention of Netscape, which was eager to find a directory capable of competing with Yahoo’s index. In November 1998, Netscape acquired GnuHoo (then called NewHoo), promising to both develop it and release it under an “open content” license, which meant anyone could use it. At the date of Netscape’s acquisition, the directory had indexed some 100,000 URLs; a year later, it included about a million.

Wales clearly had the open-content movement in mind when, in the fall of 1999, he began thinking about a “volunteer-built” online encyclopedia. The idea—explored most prominently in Stallman’s 1999 essay “The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource”—had been around for some time. Wales says he had no direct knowledge of Stallman’s essay when he embarked on his encyclopedia project, but two bits of evidence suggest that he was thinking of Stallman’s GNU free documentation license. First, the name Wales adopted for his encyclopedia——strongly suggested a Stallman-esque venture. Second, he took the trouble of leasing a related domain name, By January 2000, his encyclopedia project had acquired funding from Bomis and hired its first employee: Larry Sanger.

The Philosopher

Sanger was born in 1968 in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. When he was seven, his father, a marine biologist, moved the family to Anchorage, Alaska, where Sanger spent his youth. He excelled in high school, and in 1986 he enrolled at Reed College. Reed is the sort of school you attend if you are intelligent, are not interested in investment banking, and wonder a lot about truth. There Sanger found a question that fired his imagination: What is knowledge? He embarked on that most unremunerative of careers, epistemology, and entered a doctoral program in philosophy at Ohio State.

Sanger fits the profile of almost every Internet early adopter: he’d been a good student, played Dungeons & Dragons, and tinkered with PCs as a youth—going so far as to code a text-based adventure game in BASIC, the first popular programming language. He was drawn into the world of philosophy discussion lists and, in the early 1990s, was an active participant in Wales’s objectivism forum. Sanger also hosted a mailing list as part of his own online philosophy project (eventually named the Association for Systematic Philosophy). The mission and mien of Sanger’s list stood in stark contrast to Wales’s Rand forum. Sanger was far more programmatic. As he wrote in his opening manifesto, dated March 22, 1994:

The history of philosophy is full of disagreement and confusion. One reaction by philosophers to this state of things is to doubt whether the truth about philosophy can ever be known, or whether there is any such thing as the truth about philosophy. But there is another reaction: one may set out to think more carefully and methodically than one’s intellectual forebears.

Wales’s Rand forum was generally serious, but it was also a place for philosophically inclined laypeople to shoot the breeze: Wales permitted discussion of “objectivism in the movies” or “objectivism in Rush lyrics.” Sanger’s list was more disciplined, but he soon began to feel it, too, was of limited philosophical worth. He resigned after little more than a year. “I think that my time could really be better spent in the real world,” Sanger wrote in his resignation letter, “as opposed to cyberspace, and in thinking to myself, rather than out loud to a bunch of other people.” Sanger was seriously considering abandoning his academic career.

As the decade and the century came to a close, another opportunity arose, one that would let Sanger make a living away from academia, using the acumen he had developed on the Internet. In 1998, Sanger created a digest of news reports relating to the “Y2K problem.” Sanger’s Review of Y2K News Reports became a staple of IT managers across the globe. It also set him to thinking about how he might make a living in the new millennium. In January 2000, he sent Wales a business proposal for what was in essence a cultural news blog. Sanger’s timing was excellent.

The Cathedral

Wales was looking for someone with good academic credentials to organize Nupedia, and Sanger fit the bill. Wales pitched the project to Sanger in terms of Eric S. Raymond’s essay (and later book) “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” Raymond sketched two models of software development. Under the “cathedral model,” source code was guarded by a core group of developers; under the “bazaar model,” it was released on the Internet for anyone to tinker with. Raymond argued that the latter model was better, and he coined a now-famous hacker aphorism to capture its superiority: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” His point was simply that the speed with which a complex project is perfected is directly proportional to the number of informed people working on it. Wales was enthusiastic about Raymond’s thesis. His experience with MUDs and Web rings had demonstrated to him the power of the bazaar. Sanger, the philosopher, was charier about the wisdom-of-crowds scheme but drawn to the idea of creating an open online encyclopedia that would break all the molds. Sanger signed on and moved to San Diego.

According to Sanger, Wales was very “hands-off.” He gave Sanger only the loosest sketch of an open encyclopedia. “Open” meant two things: First, anyone, in principle, could contribute. Second, all of the content would be made freely available. Sanger proceeded to create, in effect, an online academic journal. There was simply no question in his mind that Nupedia would be guided by a board of experts, that submissions would be largely written by experts, and that articles would be published only after extensive peer review. Sanger set about recruiting academics to work on Nupedia. In early March 2000, he and Wales deemed the project ready to go public, and the Nupedia Web site was launched with the following words:

Suppose scholars the world over were to learn of a serious online encyclopedia effort in which the results were not proprietary to the encyclopedists, but were freely distributable under an open content license in virtually any desired medium. How quickly would the encyclopedia grow?

The answer, as Wales and Sanger found out, was “not very.” Over the first several months little was actually accomplished in terms of article assignment, writing, and publication. First, there was the competition. Wales and Sanger had the bad luck to launch Nupedia around the same time as Encyclopedia Britannica was made available for free on the Internet. Then there was the real problem: production. Sanger and the Nupedia board had worked out a multistage editorial system that could have been borrowed from any scholarly journal. In a sense, it worked: assignments were made, articles were submitted and evaluated, and copyediting was done. But, to both Wales and Sanger, it was all much too slow. They had built a cathedral.

The Bazaar

I n the mid-1980s, a programmer named Ward Cunningham began trying to create a “pattern language” for software design. A pattern language is in essence a common vocabulary used in solving engineering problems—think of it as best practices for designers. Cunningham believed that software development should have a pattern language, and he proposed to find a way for software developers to create it.

Apple’s Hypercard offered inspiration. Hypercard was a very flexible database application. It allowed users to create records (“cards”), add data fields to them, and link them in sets. Cunningham created a Hypercard “stack” of software patterns and shared it with colleagues. His stack was well liked but difficult to share, since it existed only on Cunningham’s computer. In the 1990s, Cunningham found himself looking for a problem-solving technique that would allow software developers to fine-tune and accumulate their knowledge collaboratively. A variation on Hypercard seemed like an obvious option.

Cunningham coded and, in the spring of 1995, launched the first “wiki,” calling it the “WikiWikiWeb.” (Wiki is Hawaiian for “quick,” which Cunningham chose to indicate the ease with which a user could edit the pages.) A wiki is a Web site that allows multiple users to create, edit, and hyperlink pages. As users work, a wiki can keep track of all changes; users can compare versions as they edit and, if necessary, revert to earlier states. Nothing is lost, and everything is transparent.

The wiki quickly gained a devoted following within the software community. And there it remained until January 2001, when Sanger had dinner with an old friend named Ben Kovitz. Kovitz was a fan of “extreme programming.” Standard software engineering is very methodical—first you plan, then you plan and plan and plan, then you code. The premise is that you must correctly anticipate what the program will need to do in order to avoid drastic changes late in the coding process. In contrast, extreme programmers advocate going live with the earliest possible version of new software and letting many people work simultaneously to rapidly refine it.

Over tacos that night, Sanger explained his concerns about Nupedia’s lack of progress, the root cause of which was its serial editorial system. As Nupedia was then structured, no stage of the editorial process could proceed before the previous stage was completed. Kovitz brought up the wiki and sketched out “wiki magic,” the mysterious process by which communities with common interests work to improve wiki pages by incremental contributions. If it worked for the rambunctious hacker culture of programming, Kovitz said, it could work for any online collaborative project. The wiki could break the Nupedia bottleneck by permitting volunteers to work simultaneously all over the project. With Kovitz in tow, Sanger rushed back to his apartment and called Wales to share the idea. Over the next few days he wrote a formal proposal for Wales and started a page on Cunningham’s wiki called “WikiPedia.”

Wales and Sanger created the first Nupedia wiki on January 10, 2001. The initial purpose was to get the public to add entries that would then be “fed into the Nupedia process” of authorization. Most of Nupedia’s expert volunteers, however, wanted nothing to do with this, so Sanger decided to launch a separate site called “Wikipedia.” Neither Sanger nor Wales looked on Wikipedia as anything more than a lark. This is evident in Sanger’s flip announcement of Wikipedia to the Nupedia discussion list. “Humor me,” he wrote. “Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes.” And, to Sanger’s surprise, go they did. Within a few days, Wikipedia outstripped Nupedia in terms of quantity, if not quality, and a small community developed. In late January, Sanger created a Wikipedia discussion list (Wikipedia-L) to facilitate discussion of the project. At the end of January, Wikipedia had seventeen “real” articles (entries with more than 200 characters). By the end of February, it had 150; March, 572; April, 835; May, 1,300; June, 1,700; July, 2,400; August, 3,700. At the end of the year, the site boasted approximately 15,000 articles and about 350 “Wikipedians.”

Setting the Rules

W ikipedia’s growth caught Wales and Sanger off guard. It forced them to make quick decisions about what Wikipedia would be, how to foster cooperation, and how to manage it. In the beginning it was by no means clear what an “open” encyclopedia should include. People posted all manner of things: dictionary definitions, autobiographies, position papers, historical documents, and original research. In response, Sanger created a “What Wikipedia Is Not” page. There he and the community defined Wikipedia by exclusion—not a dictionary, not a scientific journal, not a source collection, and so on. For everything else, they reasoned that if an article could conceivably have gone in Britannica, it was “encyclopedic” and permitted; if not, it was “not encyclopedic” and deleted.

Sanger and Wales knew that online collaborative ventures can easily slide into a morass of unproductive invective. They had already worked out a solution for Nupedia, called the “lack of bias” policy. On Wikipedia it became NPOV, or the “neutral point of view,” and it brilliantly encouraged the work of the community. Under NPOV, authors were enjoined to present the conventionally acknowledged “facts” in an unbiased way, and, where arguments occurred, to accord space to both sides. The concept of neutrality, though philosophically unsatisfying, had a kind of everybody-lay-down-your-arms ring to it. Debates about what to include in the article were encouraged on the “discussion” page that attends every Wikipedia article.

The most important initial question, however, concerned governance. When Wikipedia was created, wikis were synonymous with creative anarchy. Both Wales and Sanger thought that the software might be useful, but that it was no way to build a trusted encyclopedia. Some sort of authority was assumed to be essential. Wales’s part in it was clear: he owned Wikipedia. Sanger’s role was murkier.

Citing the communal nature of the project, Sanger refused the title of “editor in chief,” a position he held at Nupedia, opting instead to be “chief organizer.” He governed the day-to-day operations of the project in close consultation with the “community,” the roughly two dozen committed Wikipedians (most of them Nupedia converts) who were really designing the software and adding content to the site. Though the division of powers between Sanger and the community remained to be worked out, an important precedent had been set: Wikipedia would have an owner, but no leader.

The Cunctator

B y October 2001, the number of Wikipedians was growing by about fifty a month. There were a lot of new voices, among them a user known as “The Cunctator” (Latin for “procrastinator” or “delayer”). “Cunc,” as he was called, advocated a combination of anarchy (no hierarchy within the project) and radical openness (few or no limitations on contributions). Sanger was not favorably disposed to either of these positions, though he had not had much of a chance to air his opposition. Cunc offered such an opportunity by launching a prolonged “edit war” with Sanger in mid-October of that year. In an edit war, two or more parties cyclically cancel each other’s work on an article with no attempt to find the NPOV. It’s the wiki equivalent of “No, your mother wears combat boots.”

With Cunc clearly in mind, Sanger curtly defended his role before the community on November 1, 2001:

I need to be granted fairly broad authority by the community—by you, dear reader—if I am going to do my job effectively. Until fairly recently, I was granted such authority by Wikipedians. I was indeed not infrequently called to justify decisions I made, but not constantly and nearly always respectfully and helpfully. This place in the community did not make me an all-powerful editor who must be obeyed on pain of ousting; but it did make me a leader. That’s what I want, again. This is my job.

Seen from the trenches, this was a striking statement. Sanger had so far said he was primus inter pares; now he seemed to be saying that he was just primus. Upon reading this post, one Wikipedian wrote: “Am I the only person who detects a change in [Sanger’s] view of his own position? Am I the only person who fears this is a change for the worse?”

On November 4, the Sanger-Cunc contretemps exploded. Simon Kissane, a respected Wikipedian, accused Sanger of capriciously deleting pages, including some of Cunc’s work. Sanger denied the allegation but implied that the excised material was no great loss. He then launched a defense of his position in words that bled resentment:

I do reserve the right to permanently delete things—particularly when they have little merit and when they are posted by people whose main motive is evidently to undermine my authority and therefore, as far as I’m concerned, damage the project. Now suppose that, in my experience, if I make an attempt to justify this or other sorts of decisions, the people in question will simply co-opt huge amounts of my time and will never simply say, “Larry, you win; we realize that this decision is up to you, and we’ll have to respect it.” Then, in order to preserve my time and sanity, I have to act like an autocrat. In a way, I am being trained to act like an autocrat. It’s rather clever in a way—if you think college-level stunts are clever. Frankly, it’s hurting the project, guys—so stop it, already. Just write articles—please!

The blowup disturbed Wales to no end. As a list moderator, he had tried hard to keep his discussants out of flame wars. He weighed in with an unusually forceful posting that warned against a “culture of conflict.” Wikipedia, he implied, was about building an encyclopedia, not about debating how to build or govern an encyclopedia. Echoing Sanger, he argued that the primary duty of community members was to contribute—by writing code, adding content, and editing. Enough talk, he seemed to be saying: we know what to do, now let’s get to work. Yet he also seemed to take a quiet stand against Sanger’s positions on openness and on his own authority:

Just speaking off the top of my head, I think that total deletions seldom make sense. They should be reserved primarily for pages that are just completely mistaken (typos, unlikely misspellings), or for pages that are nothing more than insults.

Wales also made a strong case that anyone deleting pages should record his or her identity, explain his or her reasons, and archive the entire affair.

Within several weeks, Sanger and Cunc were at each other’s throats again. Sanger had proposed creating a “Wikipedia Militia” that would deal with issues arising from sudden massive influxes of new visitors. It was hardly a bad idea: such surges did occur (they’re commonly called “slash-dottings”). But Cunc saw in Sanger’s reasonable proposition a very slippery slope toward “central authority.” “You start deputizing groups of people to do necessary and difficult tasks,” he wrote, “fast-forward two/three years, and you have pernicious cabals.”

Given the structure of Wikipedia there was little Sanger could do to defend himself. The principles of the project denied him real punitive authority: he couldn’t ban “trolls”—users like Cunc who baited others for sport—and deleting posts was evidence of tyranny in the eyes of Sanger’s detractors. A defensive strategy wouldn’t work either, as the skilled moderator’s tactic for fighting bad behavior—ignoring it—was blunted by the wiki. On e-mail lists, unanswered inflammatory posts quickly vanish under layers of new discussion; on a wiki, they remain visible to all, often near the tops of pages. Sanger was trapped by his own creation.

The “God-King”

W ales saw that Sanger was having trouble managing the project. Indeed, he seems to have sensed that Wikipedia really needed no manager. In mid-December 2001, citing financial shortfalls, he told Sanger that Bomis would be cutting its staff and that he should look for a new job. To that point, Wales and his partners had supported both Nupedia and Wikipedia. But with Bomis suffering in the Internet bust, there was financial pressure. Early on, Wales had said that advertising was a possibility, but the community was now set against any commercialization. In January 2002, Sanger loaded up his possessions and returned to Ohio.

Cunc responded to Sanger’s departure with apparent appreciation:

I know that we’ve hardly been on the best of terms, but I want you to know that I’ll always consider you one of the most important Wikipedians, and I hope that you’ll always think of yourself as a Wikipedian, even if you don’t have much time to contribute. Herding cats ain’t easy; you did a good job, all things considered.

Characteristically, Sanger took this as nothing more than provocation: “Oh, how nice and gracious this was. Oh, thank you SO much, Cunctator. I’m sure glad I won’t have to deal with you anymore, Cunctator. You’re a friggin’ piece of work.” The next post on the list is from Wales, who showed a business- as-usual sangfroid: “With the resignation of Larry, there is a much less pressing need for funds.”

Sanger made two great contributions to Wikipedia: he built it, and he left it. After forging a revolutionary mode of knowledge building, he came to realize—albeit dimly at first—that it was not to his liking. He found that he was not heading a disciplined crew of qualified writers and editors collaborating on authoritative statements (the Nupedia ideal), but trying to control an ill-disciplined crowd of volunteers fighting over ever-shifting articles. From Sanger’s point of view, both the behavior of the participants and the quality of the scholarship were wanting. Even after seeing Wikipedia’s explosive growth, Sanger continued to argue that Wikipedia should engage experts and that Nupedia should be saved.

Wales, though, was a businessman. He wanted to build a free encyclopedia, and Wikipedia offered a very rapid and economically efficient means to that end. The articles flooded in, many were good, and they cost him almost nothing. Why interfere? Moreover, Wales was not really the meddling kind. Early on, Wikipedians took to calling him the “God-King.” The appellation is purely ironic. Over the past four years, Wales has repeatedly demonstrated an astounding reluctance to use his power, even when the community has begged him to. He wouldn’t exile trolls or erase offensive material, much less settle on rules for how things should or should not be done. In 2003, Wales diminished his own authority by transferring Wikipedia and all of its assets to the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, whose sole purpose is to set general policy for Wikipedia and its allied projects. (He is one of five members of the foundation’s board.)

Wales’s benign rule has allowed Wikipedia to do what it does best: grow. The numbers are staggering. The English-language Wikipedia alone has well more than a million articles and expands by about 1,700 a day. (Britannica’s online version, by comparison, has about 100,000 articles.) As of mid-February 2006, more than 65,000 Wikipedians—registered users who have made at least ten edits since joining—had contributed to the English-language Wikipedia. The number of registered contributors is increasing by more than 6,000 a month; the number of unregistered contributors is presumably much larger. Then there are the 200-odd non-English-language Wikipedias. Nine of them already have more than 100,000 entries each, and nearly all of the major-language versions are growing on pace with the English version.

What is Wikipedia?

T he Internet did not create the desire to collect human knowledge. For most of history, however, standardizing and gathering knowledge was hard to do very effectively. The main problem was rampant equivocation. Can we all agree on what an apple is exactly, or the shades of the color green? Not easily. The wiki offered a way for people to actually decide in common. On Wikipedia, an apple is what the contributors say it is right now. You can try to change the definition by throwing in your own two cents, but the community—the voices actually negotiating and renegotiating the definition—decides in the end. Wikipedia grew out of a natural impluse (communication) facilitated by a new technology (the wiki).

The power of the community to decide, of course, asks us to reexamine what we mean when we say that something is “true.” We tend to think of truth as something that resides in the world. The fact that two plus two equals four is written in the stars—we merely discovered it. But Wikipedia suggests a different theory of truth. Just think about the way we learn what words mean. Generally speaking, we do so by listening to other people (our parents, first). Since we want to communicate with them (after all, they feed us), we use the words in the same way they do. Wikipedia says judgments of truth and falsehood work the same way. The community decides that two plus two equals four the same way it decides what an apple is: by consensus. Yes, that means that if the community changes its mind and decides that two plus two equals five, then two plus two does equal five. The community isn’t likely to do such an absurd or useless thing, but it has the ability.

Early detractors commonly made two criticisms of Wikipedia. First, unless experts were writing and vetting the material, the articles were inevitably going to be inaccurate. Second, since anyone could edit, vandals would have their way with even the best articles, making them suspect. No encyclopedia produced in this way could be trusted. Last year, however, a study in the journal Nature compared Britannica and Wikipedia science articles and suggested that the former are usually only marginally more accurate than the latter. Britannica demonstrated that Nature's analysis was seriously flawed (“Fatally Flawed” was the fair title of the response), and no one has produced a more authoritative study of Wikipedia’s accuracy. Yet it is a widely accepted view that Wikipedia is comparable to Britannica. Vandalism also has proved much less of an issue than originally feared. A study by IBM suggests that although vandalism does occur (particularly on high-profile entries like “George W. Bush”), watchful members of the huge Wikipedia community usually swoop down to stop the malfeasance shortly after it begins.

There are, of course, exceptions, as in the case of the journalist John Seigenthaler, whose Wikipedia biography long contained a libel about his supposed complicity in the assassinations of John F. and Robert Kennedy. But even this example shows that the system is, if not perfect, at least responsive. When Seigenthaler became aware of the error, he contacted Wikipedia. The community (led in this instance by Wales) purged the entry of erroneous material, expanded it, and began to monitor it closely. Even though the Seigenthaler entry is often attacked by vandals, and is occasionally locked to block them, the page is more reliable precisely because it is now under “enough eyeballs.” The same could be said about many controversial entries on Wikipedia: the quality of articles generally increases with the number of eyeballs. Given enough eyeballs, all errors are shallow.

Common Knowledge

I n June 2001, only six months after Wikipedia was founded, a Polish Wikipedian named Krzysztof Jasiutowicz made an arresting and remarkably forward-looking observation. The Internet, he mused, was nothing but a “global Wikipedia without the end-user editing facility.” The contents of the Internet—its pages—are created by a loose community of users, namely those on the Web. The contents of Wikipedia—its entries—are also created by a loose community of users, namely Wikipedians. On the Internet, contributors own their own pages, and only they can edit them. They can also create new pages as they see fit. On Wikipedia, contributors own all of the pages collectively, and each can edit nearly every page. Page creation is ultimately subject to community approval. The private-property regime that governs the Internet allows it to grow freely, but it makes organization and improvement very difficult. In contrast, Wikipedia’s communal regime permits growth plus organization and improvement. The result of this difference is there for all to see: much of the Internet is a chaotic mess and therefore useless, whereas Wikipedia is well ordered and hence very useful.

Having seen all of this in prospect, Jasiutowicz asked a logical question: “Can someone please tell me what’s the end point/goal of Wikipedia?” Wales responded, only half jokingly, “The goal of Wikipedia is fun for the contributors.” He had a point. Editing Wikipedia is fun, and even rewarding. The site is huge, so somewhere on it there is probably something you know quite a bit about. Imagine that you happen upon your pet subject, or perhaps even look it up to see how it’s being treated. And what do you find? Well, this date is wrong, that characterization is poor, and a word is mispelled. You click the “edit” tab and make the corrections, and you’ve just contributed to the progress of human knowledge. All in under five minutes, and at no cost.

Yet Wikipedia has a value that goes far beyond the enjoyment of its contributors. For all intents and purposes, the project is laying claim to a vast region of the Internet, a territory we might call “common knowledge.” It is the place where all nominal information about objects of widely shared experience will be negotiated, stored, and renegotiated. When you want to find out what something is, you will go to Wikipedia, for that is where common knowledge will, by convention, be archived and updated and made freely available. And while you are there, you may just add or change a little something, and thereby feel the pride of authorship shared by the tens of thousands of Wikipedians.


O ne of the objects of common knowledge in Wikipedia, I’m relieved to report, is “Marshall Poe.” Recall that the Scottish Wikipedian Alai said that I had no “notability” and therefore couldn’t really be considered encyclopedic. On the same day that Alai suggested my entry be deleted, a rather vigorous discussion took place on the “discussion” page that attended the Marshall Poe entry. A Wikipedian who goes by “Dlyons493” discovered that I had indeed written an obscure dissertation on an obscure topic at a not-so-obscure university. He gave the article a “Weak Keep.” Someone with the handle “Splash” searched Amazon and verified that I had indeed written books on Russian history, so my claim to be a historian was true. He gave me a “Keep.” And finally, my champion and hero, a Wikipedian called “Tupsharru,” dismissed my detractors with this:

Keep. Obvious notability. Several books published with prestigious academic publishers. One of his books has even been translated into Swedish. I don’t know why I have to repeat this again and again in these deletion discussions on academics, but don’t just use Amazon when the Library of Congress catalogue is no farther than a couple of mouse clicks away.

Bear in mind that I knew none of these people, and they had, as far as I know, no interest other than truth in doing all of this work. Yet they didn’t stop with verifying my claims and approving my article. They also searched the Web for material they could use to expand my one-line biography. After they were done, the Marshall Poe entry was two paragraphs long and included a good bibliography. Now that’s wiki magic.

Hive photograph by Ralph A. Clevenger/Corbis