Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Safire's Star Dims

We note the passing of longtime New York Times columnist William Safire.

He was a conservative in the best sense: concerned about the conservation of liberty, non-dogmatic in many areas.

His columns which were most enjoyable were those "On Language" in the Magazine, focusing on words and phrases, the history of their use, and pointing out unusual and erroneous usage.

He is also remembered for his job, prior to the Times, working as a speechwriter for the Nixon Administration. He invented potent Agnew speech phrases like "effete corps of impudent snobs" (referring to antiwar protestors) and "nattering nabobs of negatism" (about critics of the Administration).

Yes, he was a battler, and on the wrong side, but he showed a sense of honor. And he left that dishonored administration before it was publicly exposed through Agnew's corruption, Nixon's foul-mouthed tapes, and the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

He could also be extremely clueless. He never seemed to get over the end of the Cold War--you could rely on him to take the view that was most suspicious of Russia afterwards, no matter the identity of its leadership or the circumstance.

I was one of many who called him out for an egregious and inexplicable error in a reference in December '05:
I was somewhat appalled to decode the following sentence from your Sunday Magazine piece called "Whitelist":
Worm first appeared in the context of evilware in a 1975 sci-fi novel by John Dunner.
What shocked me was not that you would have offered up the reference, which I think is a fine one, but that your fact-checkers would miss the obvious error in the name of the author, John Brunner.

You owe the author a specific mention of the book in which "worm"is introduced, Shockwave Rider, one of the classic novels of sci-fi. Personally, I'm a fan of The Sheep Look Up, which comes pretty close to describing this year's natural disasters and the public reaction to them.

I would have liked to see some more in-depth discussion of the various biological analogues used in computer lingo about "malware". Besides the "Virus" and "tapeworm" (the full name of Brunner's concept), and the ubiquitous "bug", there are also references to sexual intercourse. And, to the nonliving world of personnel mines. Could be quite a colorful follow-up.

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