Friday, March 27, 2009

I Wish I Didn't Know Now What I Didn't Know Then

It's a sad day when you think you're reading satire or some piece of phony humor, and it turns out that it's really an article from ten years ago in the New York Times that contains the following quote:

The article is worth reading for a host of reasons. For one, it exposes our political system and highlights that some legislators do, in fact, understand our complex economy -- even if they're unable to stop the train of stupidity that they're riding on.

Another quote from the article that's telling:

That sounds like a commercial, if there ever was one, for economic destruction. Of course, my rear-view mirrors are spotless, so take all of this with a grain of salt. Remember this when someone decries the role of government and casts them as regulators holding back innovation. Remember all of this because there are a lot of people that make loud noises as great pundits that think that "simple" answers to complex questions are substitutes for history and intelligence. Remember things like the events, documented for posterity, by this article for what they were.

Hopeless, stupid mistakes by people that had all of the facts, the history and the understanding to know better, and yet they still proceeded to enact legislation that would be our downfall.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More Partisan Stupidity

The latest Republican hopeful, Bobby Jindal, is going to continue a tradition:

What tradition? The idea that simple rhetoric and posture are replacements for true leadership.

This was attempted by prior candidates for president (mainly vice), and make no mistake, there are people that are gearing up for the 2012 presidential race with bets on Jindal.

The problem is fundamentally bigger than the above: The president-buying-public as it is, is looking for someone who can solve problems. My view is that they want a president engaged in dialog. Someone who is inclusive. Talk like the above is not inclusive -- it's disastrous. It really is un-American to wish that your president will fail.

The issue at heart that is not being addressed is that this was a game created by people like Bill O'reilly when he pontificated that people should "Shut Up" in regards to (name that tune, you un-American moron). Bill and people like him started and pushed the idea that to speak anything negative at a crucial time -- that's un-American. This is exclusive dialog -- it separates, rather than unites. At its core is a fundamental problem -- we as a nation are allowed to disagree sometimes. At the end of the day, however, we're supposed to work as a cohesive whole for the greater good. We're not supposed to wish for failure, in other words.

On the other side, Rush Limbaugh comes out after the Dems win the election and says he wants Barak to fail.

Out of control Republican pundits, in other words, have brought the biggest hope for success for the Republican party into the spotlight -- and his first order of business is to attempt to reconcile the moronic rhetoric of their pundits and talk-show egotists. He has to do this because if he doesn't, Rush and Bill are not going to support him.

What's really wrong with this picture? Rhetoric, exclusive dialog and simplistic thinking (in my not-so-humble opinion), have lost the conservatives a lot of ground lately.

Bobby Jindal, if he hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people that are going to elect him, is going to have to address the real problems in America with real solutions. He's going to have to find a way to include more people in his party. He's going to have to distance himself from the stupidity of what's running the party today -- Bill, Ann, Shawn and Rush. These people are doing real damage to the party that they supposedly want to win the presidential race.

I don't think Jindal is up to this, for what its worth. I think that there are far better conservatives up to the task -- but they're not going to get Rush and Bills support.

There is a guy right now who's engaged in real dialog with the nation. That guy obviously doesn't want to fail -- at least, that's what he's saying (and it sure looks real to me). He's an obvious problem solver. That guy has been working hard to be inclusive -- it's really obvious on a lot of fronts. That guy is our President. We have him for another 4 years.

I don't want him to fail because I don't think we've had problems this big for quite some time as a nation. I think we do need some Partisan balance to solve the problems that Barak wants to solve. I think we need more than simplistic thinking and negative, exclusive discourse to fix what we're up against. More to the point -- I think that the American people are smart enough to tell the difference, at the end of the day, between simple rhetoric and complex solutions to tough problems.

And now I'm going to do something I rarely do -- I'm going to take Bill O'Reilly's advice. I'm going to shut up.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spitzers' Latest Column -- Read It

Eliot Spitzer's latest column, entitled "The Real AIG Scandal" is about more than the shameless bonus money -- it's about what's really wrong with the bail-out cash. It's about transparency (rather, the lack of it), corporate courtship (or affairs between corporations -- collusion and the potential thereof) and it's about how everyone but us (you and I, the taxpayers that are funding this charade) is getting paid in full.

In short, it's news that for some reason, is not making its way to the front page or onto the main screen of CNN and FOX.

Eliot -- glad to see you back doing what you do best -- exposing criminal behavior.

And if it isn't criminal today, you can bet someday it will be soon if enough people figure out how we've been robbed.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

More of the Same Problem With Our Media

In case you've missed it, something interesting happened Thursday night -- Jon Stewart in a show segment that more or less would probably make Morley Safer proud, took apart "Mad Money" host Jim Cramer.

And, following up it looks like his producers asked for the interview to be squelched by the rest of the NBC network.

I don't see any easy way to regulate our media. We can make all kinds of pontifications and express the deepest beliefs about freedom, but the fact of the matter is that popular crap sells advertising. Fox news, by pandering to ultra-conservatives gains a chunk of viewers that (from what I can tell) end up upon a news island of sorts, believing the rest of the media to be run by "media elite" liberals.

We could make laws to fix this, but I think the end result would be something even worse than what we have today -- because ignorance is much easier to achieve than intelligence. It's much easier to not understand the facts of the matter and to draw some stupid conclusions than it is to dive in and understand the specifics.

It's easier to live in a fantasy world, such as the one that Ayn Rand has created, than the real world we live in today.

Because of these kinds of vectors and human nature, we face a problem of sorts with the media -- media conglomerates that own the news have motivation to go for economies of scale. They are not motivated to, for example, fund local news efforts. It's easy to see that newspapers are dying, local TV stations are much a thing of the past. Cable, the Internet, blogs -- there's a lot of diversity that's supposedly going to come in and balance this problem.

Except that maybe my blog, for example, is read by a bunch of people in Cleveland or Washington -- and at the end of the day, is no substitute for a newspaper. Not quite that long ago, newspapers employed local reporters and op-ed writers. Those people told the local story to an audience that more or less cared. They had an easy way to make local waves when the tide was needed.

This is the focal point of this post -- as these things are dying off, one has to wonder just what's going to maintain the sense of community required for a local society to function. What will be the local check and balance for broadcasting local corruption or just a basic focus on local issues?

The terrifying part for me here is that usually I can see some way to either remove some regulation -- or to add it. I don't think this particular problem is going to solve itself, in other words. I've known people that started their own publications -- it's extremely hard to do. Finding advertisers and talent to write the content is difficult enough -- the reader base has to have motivation to consume the news.

Lacking any kind of state run news (thankfully), it's a stretch to see something commercial coming along. Maybe though, it will be something based upon a device -- like blackberry or iphone essential local news. Still, all of this is hard to imagine given the fact that a lot of people think "Information wants to be free", but the hard reality is that "Information wants to be useless".

Both of the phrases in the prior paragraph are conjecture-style sayings. The first saying indicates that no matter how badly people try to charge for information, the public will find a way to broadcast said information for "free" (note, not counting, obviously, all of the bandwidth charges involved).

The second saying more or less coined by Bruce Sterling I interpret to mean something else. It states that after all information is broadcast through media done for free, it will essentially be unusable. Why? Because you won't know the source, won't know how far away from your viewpoint the broadcaster is, how old it is, whether or not it was filtered or compared to and so on.

In other words, I would love to think that our free society principals and some blogging are going to be a substitute for a local paper -- but it's becoming really obvious (to me at least) that this is nuts.

Let's take the time machine back a ways -- let's go to some small town in the 1800 where some local press-jockey runs his own paper. The audience was controlled, the need for the paper, obvious. The cost to run the paper -- probably some serious blood, sweat and tears, but somehow, at the end of the day, the papers were cut, the copy delivered, the local news told. The local society, I'm sure, had differing views at times to the words that were being printed. At the end of the day, however, what was there served as a way to glue a local community together. Right or wrong, some people made a living doing this.

And here we are, 200 years later -- with things like free software, free desktop publishing software, cheap printers and ubiquitous digital delivery protocols -- and somehow we can't find the collective spit as a society to employ people with similar motivation to deliver local news?

What in the hell is wrong with this picture?

It's a conundrum for me. The vulnerability is obvious -- America could have a Tienanmen's square incident, and it could go unreported in the local news, because there won't be any local news. In case you're thinking "fat chance", read my last post (which is just the opposite, and a related concern).

Certain functions, news reporting and medical billing to name a couple of obvious ones, don't jibe as typical capitalistic transactions. News reporting in my view, is something that should be rewarded on an ethical scale somehow. Similar to this, when someone is dying in the emergency room at a hospital, they're obviously vulnerable at that moment -- it would be horrible to rob them blind at the same time just because you hold their lives in the balance of the "transaction".

Capitalism is great -- I believe in it wholeheartedly for creating work and making our productive society -- but it's high time we realized collectively and as a society that there are things that have to be reexamined -- and the news is one of them. I don't think we should regulate the news, but there must be some way to reward ethical news behavior outside of the framework we're seeing today.

Because it's obviously a sad day when the best news reporting you can find is being done by a couple of comedians on Comedy Central.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Problem With American Media

Over the course of the past few years in various posts I've talked from time to time about freedom-related issues. In various cases I've alluded to a problem with our so-called "free" press. I've talked about astroturf (phony grass roots) campaigns by companies trying to obscure the truth (there's a fine line between that and positive, generated buzz).

The issue is this: News is not, and never should be, a profit center. News is news -- it might be bad news about the very corporation that owns the media. In case you've been living under a rock or on some other planet, these days, there's been quite a lot of consolation of media. Large swatches of what used to be lots of independent media outlets have been gobbled up by conglomerates. As this has happened, our press in various forms has been impacted -- in my not-so-humble opinion, negatively.

I have very intimate experience (at a microscopic level) of this phenomenon in action, having done some time in the on-line news arena. The issue was advertising, and the general tendency to pander to a sponsor. If it was happening in the smallest sense, then I can only imagine the pressures of large corporations to do similar, much more damaging (to the news overall) actions.

Today, illustrating this concept, is the following sound-byte, taken from an extremely interesting article on the dirty-bomb plot surrounding Barak Obama's inauguration. What's that you say? You didn't hear about it? Oh, well, read the sound byte in the article (link provided):

How do you like them apples? Granted, this may not be the real reason we're not hearing about this attempt -- maybe there's some other reason.

Maybe people aren't interested in the topic -- or it was somehow censored by the regular news media by the government (highly doubtful).

Before I shout Occum's Razor or attempt to speculate some other explanation, simply ask yourself:

  • If there was a story like this in the press, wouldn't you have been interested?
  • If a story like this didn't make it to the press, wouldn't you also be interested in hearing why?
  • Why didn't it make it -- why haven't we heard about this one on CNN, FOX, MSNBC, the New York Times and so on?
I know I have my own opinions -- I'd be interested in hearing yours.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Why Social Networking?

A lot of people don't use facebook but do have an email address.

This posting started as a reply to a facebook wall posting by a family member. It's only fitting. The particular family member is not on facebook. The wall posting was by another facebook network contact who was wishing me happy birthday and relaying news from a relative who was not on facebook. I pass messages through them instead of via email. I started thinking "Why don't I just email that relative who's not on facebook?".

Out of those thoughts the relevance of what's happening today surrounding social networking worked their way to the surface. This posting describes what I see as a paradigm shift in communication. Things are changing and as usual lots of people are not completely sold on the "new" way of doing something.

In this particular case, I explained to my family member (through the other family member) that they could only avoid facebook for a while -- but that it's now like an email address was in the past. I can remember this easily -- there was a time when I was one of a only few people on the planet that had a working email address. I would say to people:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "What's an email address?"

---- A year or so Later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "I don't do that yet. My wife/son/brother/boss/co-worker/strangers-on-the-street keeps saying I need to do that, but I don't see-the-value/have-the-time/want-to-etc"

--- A year or so later:

Me: "What's your email address?"

Them: "Oh, hey, I'm getting AOL soon. I send you a post card with it!"

--- And so on.

Facebook/Linkedin/Twitter -- social networking -- is like that today. The conversations are very similar. The time-frame, however, is compressed (see the book "Future Shock", written in 1970 for what it's worth, on the subject of time compression).

It sounds funny to debate needing something like email in your life until you realize how much we can't get by without it. Some people argue with me here -- social networking is still somewhat optional in their eyes and will be pretty much forever.

My perspective forces me to disagree. I was an early adopter of the Internet. I was managing high volume web sites in 1999 -- interactive news where the readers were posting comments on stories (I had to write a lot of that code -- very hairy stuff). I witnessed the birth of google -- no one searches the internet these days -- they "Google".

Yeah, Google is optional -- you can still search the internet other ways -- Microsoft's new search engine is going to kill Google! And we're all going to be driving flying cars in hell through a snowstorm at that time...

Social networking is to email what Google is to the old search engines (the ones that returned a thousand unusable hits). They (the old engines) simply matched strings of text with their results. The results were mildly relevant and there was a lot of time wasted slogging through pages of stuff that was often utter garbage. Along came Google, which ranked the page by relevance -- it added a value to the hit ranking that was based upon how many times a page was referenced by another page.

The thing that Google added was context. Pages being searched prior to Google were not valuable because context was not factored into the results equation. Similar value is added when you post a message on FaceBook -- sure, you could send an email message to a friend, but posting a status update on facebook adds context. It's now a message in the context of your network, instead of spam.

I know some of you are laughing disagreeably with me here, but bear with me...

Like those old search engines, email is pretty much single-threaded. It has one or two targets, unless its one of those annoying forwards, which is a separate subject altogether. Email tends to arrive in your inbox, and get processed for whatever its worth, and then archived. Social networking posts (like wall postings on facebook) are very similar to email to a group email listing. Except that the context is managed by the interface. Your social group of friends can opt to read what you're up to (or ignore it). And thanks to the way that the networking algorithms work, it's amazingly easy to find people that want to be in your circle of friends (or have been in the past -- again, another subject altogether).

Social networking has supplanted email. By bringing others into the conversation things have a completely different relevance. We all feel a lot more connected than we used to be (Because we are).

The ability to post photos, to send little gifts and so on, that's all icing on the cake -- or cruft -- I'm not into turning facebook into a gaming interface anytime soon, for example. The core functionality that facebook has brought to the table is the ability to easily add social context to conversation. Email can't easily do this. Blog postings can't easily do this.

On a similar front, Linkedin is doing the same for professional networking. It's not quite there yet, but I'd argue that Linkedin is the new resume. The old resume just told people what you had done. The new one says "Oh, and hey, I did it with these people." And because you did it with "those people", the odds of a recruiter finding your talents because they were looking at one of those people's networks -- those odds are much higher than before Linkedin. Before, a recruiter had your resume and it was -- like a dead-ended email -- just your resume, targeted at just you, with no social context.

And it helps, even if you're not looking for a job (another subject for another day). Suffice to say that I pay a lot of heed to my LinkedIn profile, because it helps attract talented people to work where I work and solve the kind of cool, impossible, fun stuff that I get to solve. I can't do it alone, just like NASA can't build the space shuttle with one brilliant engineer, the stuff I'm into these days is far beyond anything I can hope to accomplish as a single-threaded human on this planet.

I'll leave this subject here for now -- I'm sure I'll be back again though.

Social networking is changing everything. It's adding relevance and bringing people together. I suspect that the economic down-turn will push even more people into this space, more out of need than out of want. I can see it pretty clearly; There will come a point where a facebook profile is as ubiquitous as an email address.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Germans and Electronic Voting

Slashdot has a link to an article on a German court that has banned certain e-voting machines for a lack of transparency.

I find the lack of coverage of our own (American) voting problems, with similar issues, to be quite disheartening. Read the babelfish translation on the Slashdot page if you're interested in the specifics. As it sits, a host of similar issues troubles me about American voting devices. What is known about some of them was to be proprietary -- until it got accidentally leaked via an insecure FTP site.

I've blogged about this in the past. The Germans are doing the right thing here -- they're going back to paper and pencil until the technology requirements are clearly documented and the results transparently reportable. Too bad our media doesn't see this as news. Only a few states in our country see this as the vulnerability that it truly is.