Archive for the ‘Politics and Law’ Category

Rap News on Surveillance

Posted on November 16th, 2012 in Computer Security, Entertainment, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I think Bruce Schneier said it best: “Wow.” There’s not much else to say about something like this.

Still At The Beginning

Posted on November 30th, 2010 in Life, Politics and Law, Technology | 1 Comment »

We’ve reached the time of year when people start reflecting on the recent past. The latest issue of Time Magazine looks at the past decade. Pogue’s latest piece reflects on his 10 years at the NY Times. I love this sort of introspection, and I’m looking forward to seeing more over the next two months. Still, when we read things like this, we would do well to consider that we’re still very near the beginning of the computer revolution.

What does it mean to still be at the beginning? No one completely knows what this means because we can’t predict the future. Pogue’s piece does a nice job of pointing out some trends that are likely to continue in the future, but I think the best description of the future that I’ve seen lies in a RailsConf talk by Gary Vaynerchuk:

I can’t summarize Vaynerchuk’s talk because it’s about half Q&A and half completely rambled together. He starts out by giving some of his background, which is quite interesting, and he ends up talking extensively about the future of technology and business. He’s extremely energetic, genuinely humorous, and despite the talk being held at a technical conference, there’s no technobabble because Vaynerchuk isn’t a technologist. I suppose I should also warn you that there’s some language in here that the FCC would not approve for TV. Luckily, YouTube doesn’t care, or about half of this talk would be bleeped out.

I do want to talk about two things Vaynerchuck gets dead right in his talk. First, he’s optimistic about the future of technology. If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Internet optimist or an Internet pessimist, here are a couple paragraphs from Adam Thierer introducing the concepts:

The cycle goes something like this. A new technology appears. Those who fear the sweeping changes brought about by this technology see a sky that is about to fall. These “techno-pessimists” predict the death of the old order (which, ironically, is often a previous generation’s hotly-debated technology that others wanted slowed or stopped). Embracing this new technology, they fear, will result in the overthrow of traditions, beliefs, values, institutions, business models, and much else they hold sacred.

The pollyannas, by contrast, look out at the unfolding landscape and see mostly rainbows in the air. Theirs is a rose-colored world in which the technological revolution du jour is seen as improving the general lot of mankind and bringing about a better order. If something has to give, then the old ways be damned! For such “techno-optimists,” progress means some norms and institutions must adapt—perhaps even disappear—for society to continue its march forward.

Clearly, there are negative sides to both of these positions. Thierer promotes a pragmatic optimism for Internet technologies, which is a sort of middle ground that generally sides with the optimistic view, but doesn’t buy into the fringe arguments on both sides. Vaynerchuk sides with the optimists in his talk, and the optimistic view makes the most sense to me, particularly in light of the past decade or so. How much has new technology changed your life in the last ten years? And how much of that change was for the better? If your answer is “most,” then you too are on the path to Internet optimism.

The second thing that Vaynerchuk nails in his talk is the recognition that the skills of a small town three generations ago are more likely to succeed in the future being brought about by new technologies. As he puts it, the skillset of our great grandparents’ generation may actually be more important to success than the skillset of our parents’ generation. The organizations that succeed will be the ones that clearly and genuinely care about the people with whom they are working. This is already happening in business (as Vaynerchuk indicates), but it will happen in every area of our lives.

One important reason the skills to succeeding are changing is, as Vaynerchuk repeats throughout his talk, that “the truth is undefeated.” The truth will only become more important in the future of technology. Technologies are making it impossible to cover up how you really feel. For businesses, this means (in part) that slick advertising alone won’t work; they actually have to develop a product worth buying. For governments, the future looks more like honest transparency than WikiLeaks, but there’s still a lot to do before we get to the sort of future possible even if we were limited to existing technology. For individuals, the picture is even more complicated. Technology is impacting some fundamental social constructs, like privacy and identity. Maybe Wheaton’s Law has been right all these years: “Don’t be a dick” because the truth will eventually become widespread.

As much as I enjoy reflecting on the past, Vaynerchuk’s thoughts on the future are excellent YouTube viewing. The future is going to be awesome in ways that we can’t really envision right now. We’re still at the beginning.

A Post-Election Thought

Posted on November 3rd, 2010 in Politics and Law | No Comments »

I’ve been reading some of the post-election media coverage, and most of it is the same stuff I’ve seen every single year with the names replaced. Sure there are some things I’m disappointed about, like Feingold losing in Wisconsin. And there are some things I’m happy about, like Paul winning in Kentucky. Still, despite what the media would like you to believe, very little has actually changed.

By far the best post I’ve seen on this is Change: Ur Doin It Wrong, from Jonathan Blanks. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. I hope he doesn’t mind if I poach basically the whole thing here:

Even in last night’s anti-incumbent “bloodbath,” House incumbents had an 87% survival rate, roughly. That anyone thinks last night was a radical shift in our government is a damning indictment of the intelligence of the electorate and demonstrates an expectation to protect our professional liars class.

And these people are scared of “corporate money”–what the hell is it going to do? Knock the incumbency rate down to 84%?

Gimme a break.

So true.

Movie: Waiting for Superman

Posted on October 30th, 2010 in Education, Entertainment, Movies, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I saw Waiting for Superman last night, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who’s been on the fence. The movie is a documentary of the U.S. education system by Davis Guggenheim, who also made An Inconvenient Truth. The story follows a small handful of children from various backgrounds who have applied to be in the lottery for crowded public charter schools because the ‘normal’ public schools have failed them. To setup the ending, the movie starts with an introduction to these students and their different situations. As the movie progresses, it explains more of the recent history of public education in the United States, and both Allison and I sort of lost track of the fact that these were real students from real families. The ending actually shows the various lottery processes. I had been told that the ending was quite moving, so perhaps it didn’t affect me as much as it could have. Consider Kristen Paglia’s review at the Huffington Post:

From an education advocacy standpoint, this film is a gamechanger. As Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa stated at the screening, “If your blood is not boiling by the end of this film, then there is no blood pumping through your heart.” My blood was certainly boiling. Further, having fallen in love with these five children, it was hard to distinguish between the tears of rage, sorrow, and triumph by the end. This film will inspire change.

You don’t have to be super politically engaged to know that there’s a ton of problems with education in America. Sadly, it’s been a huge problem for years. Waiting for Superman does an excellent job highlighting some of the biggest problems. I’ll try not to spoil the movie for you by revealing too much, but one thing that stuck with me was an Illinois statistic about the rate of people losing their credentials for various professions. Here’s the NY Times review, which also focuses on this statistic:

In Illinois, where one in 57 doctors loses his medical license and one in 97 lawyers loses his law license, only one in 2,500 teachers loses his credentials, because of union rules.

Scary, right? The movie has a lot of other revealing things to say about the NEA and the AFT, which may come as more of a shocker to people who didn’t go into the movie thinking they were bad for education.

Guggenheim positions several people as heroic figures of a teaching revolution; it’s a stark contrast from his depiction of unions. Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, and the founders of KIPP come off looking like saints fighting the good fight. They should be lauded for their efforts, but it’s not really about finding heros. Finding heros is difficult, inconsistent, and probably not scalable. Again, from the HuffPo review:

We absolutely cannot underestimate the power of charismatic and visionary leaders, and I am grateful for the people who had the courage to make a film that celebrates education heroes, but there are not enough of those heroes to go around.

Even if we can find heros, the politics of teaching are such that they have the deck stacked against them. After the movie came out, Michelle Rhee was pushed into resigning as the D.C. Schools Chancellor. From Adam Schaeffer:

No man or woman, mayor, chancellor or superintendent can significantly and permanently reform the government education monopoly. It is unreformable. Rhee’s tenure and modest success underscores this fact. Entrenched interests regroup, respond, bide their time, and reformers move on or are shoved along.

What can we do? Well, we can realistically identify the teachers that aren’t getting the job done. Finding obviously bad teachers isn’t hard and would make a big difference. One of the reformers interviewed for the film said that if we could get rid of the bottom 6% to 10% of the profession our schools could be right back up near the best in the world. School superintendents should have the ability to fire the worst teachers rather than perform some idiotic dance of the lemons. What’s a dance of the lemons you ask? Here’s an explanation from the Hoover Institute article linked above:

Often, as a way to save time and money, an administrator will cut a deal with the union in which he agrees to give a bad teacher a satisfactory rating in return for union help in transferring the teacher to another district. The problem teacher gets quietly passed along to someone else. Administrators call it “the dance of the lemons” or “passing the trash.” Howard Fuller, the superintendent of Milwaukee public schools from 1991 to 1995, explains: “Administrators found they needed to trade bad teachers because it’s easier than getting rid of them. We had one teacher who put a student’s head down the toilet. He simply got moved to another school.”

It’s much easier to identify the worst 10% of the profession, but we can’t easily get rid of them. Remember: Illinois was only able to fire one teacher of every 2,500. That’s 249 bad teachers keeping their job for every one that gets fired.

If there’s a problem with Waiting for Superman, it is simply that the documentary needed to follow a compelling story. The most emotional aspect of the movie is watching these students as they go through the lotteries for their various charters. Unfortunately, this positions charter schools as “the answer,” when in reality those schools are still publicly funded schools. They are still subject to pressure for politicians and unions, albeit somewhat less than a normal public school. The story makes for a great documentary, but in reality we need a truly competitive environment for education. Here’s Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute:

The only way to make educators truly put children first is to require that they satisfy parents — the customers — to get their money. And that can mean only one thing: transforming our education system into one in which parents control education funding and educators have to earn their business.

Think about this for a moment. If parents had complete control over who got paid to teach their children, would we have a problem getting rid of the worst 10% of the profession? Would we have trouble accurately compensating great teachers? Would we have children stuck in lotteries like those in the movie? One of those children was entered because her mother couldn’t continue to pay for her parochial school on top of paying taxes to support her local public school. What would be so bad about treating school as a business? Again, here’s Neal McCluskey:

If a firm isn’t happy with a supplier, does it call its congressman, hold fora, pen op-eds, badger reporters, all in the hope of eventually persuading the supplier to change? Of course not: If the supplier doesn’t improve, the firm just finds a new one and moves on!

Since it is election season, I’ve seen several commercials for political candidates that attempt to trash their opponents by saying they want to eliminate the Department of Education. Every time I see one I think, “Education is too important to be a department in the government!” Do we really want to put all our eggs in one basket?

If you haven’t really given education policy much thought before, consider seeing Waiting for Superman in theaters. It’s a good introduction to both the politics and the emotion surrounding education policy. Also, when we saw the movie last night, they gave us each a $15 gift card to use at DonorsChoose.org. Regardless, it was a great way to spend an evening.

woot! and the Associated Press

Posted on July 6th, 2010 in Entertainment, Politics and Law | No Comments »

Amazon.com recently acquired woot.com. Normally, company acquisitions result in rather mundane press releases. That did not happen this time. Woot’s CEO wrote an absolutely hysterical post about the acquisition on the woot blog. If you haven’t read it, it’s definitely worth reading.

Woot’s blog post was quoted by the Associated Press, which is where things get even more interesting. The Associated Press don’t seem to understand the world they live in. For example, they have been trying to control “the bloggers,” which is about as impossible as it sounds. One of their proposed methods to control bloggers was to charge them for quoting AP stories. After all, they have the copyright, right?

Woot decided that turnabout was fair play. Since the AP charges $17.50 for quoting up to 50 words and since the AP quoted Woot’s blog post liberally, Woot wants their $17.50. (Note: this link is part of Woot’s daily deal. I’ll update the link here when it hits the archives in case you’re not reading this post on the day it was posted.) Hey, if you’re going to ask people to ignore Fair Use, you should expect that people will ask you to do the same. I hope the AP actually pays up here. It would be a great mea culpa.

Awesome Political Ads

Posted on June 25th, 2010 in Entertainment, Politics and Law | No Comments »

I have two fantastic political ads to share. The first is fake, but it’s frighteningly real. The only thing missing is the mandated “I’m so-and-so, and I support this message” quote.

(via Spaf and Political Wire)

The second is a real ad that is, well, also frighteningly real. And extremely funny. Enjoy!

(via Daring Fireball and HuffPo)

Book: Surveillance

Posted on April 5th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Politics and Law | 6 Comments »

Surveillance by Jonathan Raban is a book that I wasn’t planning on reading. I saw it at Von’s Books last week when I was at Purdue for the CERIAS Symposium. I have a list of books that I look for at used book stores, but Surveillance wasn’t on the list. I saw it on the shelf and thought, “Why not give it a chance?” I’m glad I did because it is an excellent book.

Raban’s writing is fluid and quite fun to read despite the political content, which might otherwise be dense and evoke unthinking knee-jerk reactions. He used a third-person limited omniscient viewpoint throughout the book, but did so in a way that felt very close to the characters. The narrator almost sympathizes with each character in a completely genuine fashion. In addition, Raban’s colorful phrasing made the story vibrant and engaging. His writing style stood out to me as exceptional, which is rather hard to do with fiction.

The story follows five characters as they live their lives in a highly charged political atmosphere. Tad is a HIV-positive homosexual actor who is angry with the government’s recently enacted policies aimed at preventing terrorism. Augie is a Holocaust survivor, professor, and author of a popular memoir of his boyhood years in a concentration camp. Lucy is a freelance writer working on a piece about Augie’s book. Alida is Lucy’s 11-year-old daughter, who loves math and is trying to make sense of the world around her. Charles Lee is a Chinese businessman and owner of several parking lots and the apartment building in which Lucy and Tad live.

The primary plot of the book is Lucy’s investigative reporting of Augie and his memoir. Augie’s memoir is being made into a movie, and little is known about Augie, who is perceived to be a recluse. The circumstances surrounding the publication of the novel open up interesting questions about the nature of history, eye-witness reports, and how our motivations and experiences influence our perspective. Lucy plays the role of an interested, left-leaning investigator while Tad and Augie represent the liberal and conservative perspective in the broader debate that underlies the entire novel. Tad comes off a bit more rabid in his politics than Augie, but they are worthy foils for one another. Charles Lee’s position of power as the landlord for Tad, Lucy, and Alida provides another interesting conflict for discussion.

The book explores numerous smaller subplots to further dissect the politics of terrorism, security, privacy, and freedom. For example, each major character gives their opinions on which publications and newspapers are worth reading and why. This alone would make for an interesting discussion. Also, everyone in the book is portrayed as seeking information about someone else. Lucy seeks info on Augie. Tad on Charles Lee. Charles Lee on Lucy. Alida on her mother and her classmate, Finn. The way the characters approach their quest for information provides yet another discussion point.

The ending of the book may actually provide the biggest discussion point of them all. If you read the Amazon.com reviews for this book, then you’ll see that almost everyone disliked the ending. I hesitate to talk about it much because to do so gives it away. I will simply say that I absolutely loved it. It couldn’t have ended any other way, and it speaks volumes about our current political approach to terrorism, security, and privacy. I’m not sure why other folks didn’t like it, but I suspect that they are missing the broader political statement.

Lastly, this book provides so many fascinating inroads for discussion and paints such a vivid picture of post-9/11 politics as well as the nature of security, privacy, and freedom that I’m going to make a grandiose claim: This could be one of those books that becomes much more popular after its initial release because it so essentially encapsulates the politics of the moment. It has some edgy scenes that might make it too strong to be required reading at a high school, but few other works of fiction so concisely introduce and define contemporary political problems as well as Surveillance does. In addition, the literary risk of the ending and the impressive writing style could easily support a high school level English class discussion. I strongly recommend reading it, particularly if you have a regular book club and enjoy discussing books and politics.

Another Missing Month

Posted on February 4th, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Life, Music, Politics and Law | 2 Comments »

So, apparently my last update on the Great American Novel Challenge was a bit prophetic. Things have only become crazier over the last two months, and I have now missed my third month in a row. I am still planning on finishing the challenge, and I’m aiming to finish by July 4th, 2010. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to post a review today, and I likely won’t be able to post one until after my upcoming paper deadline. In lieu of a book review this month, I will leave you with this hilarious, truly American video.

Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Posted on November 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment, Life, Politics and Law | 7 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

I’m almost embarrassed to include Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (there is no ‘The’ in the title) in my list simply because doing so is an admission that I hadn’t read it before. Then again, reading great books that we probably should have read by now is partly purpose of the Great American Novel Challenge. Make no mistake about it: Mark Twain‘s Huck Finn is a genuinely great American novel.

I should start this review where Mark Twain started his book. The first page contains this notice:

NOTICE

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

By the Order of the Author,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordinance

In some ways this notice tells you all you need to know about Mark Twain. It’s humorous, yet half-serious. It sets the reader up to find their own inner Huck Finn because if you do any of these things, then you’re breaking the established rules of the book. Of course, if you don’t see a motive, moral, or plot in the book, then why read it at all?

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn picks up where The Adventures of Tom Sawyer left off. It was conceived as a sequel, but it stands alone. Readers don’t have to have read Tom Sawyer prior to reading Huck Finn. In fact, Mark Twain struggled for eight years to write and publish Huck Finn and the books are considerably different from one another. The preface to my edition of the book explains that Huck Finn comes at the midpoint of his career and “stands on a line between the upbeat humor of the early books and the bitterness of the later ones.” I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this statement, but I can say that Huck Finn delicately balances humorous storytelling with serious social commentary.

The book is ostensibly the story of a young boy’s adventures on the Mississippi river narrated after the fact by the boy himself. The story starts with Huck Finn in his hometown being raised by a widow and her sister. They try to civilize him, but Huck Finn doesn’t particularly like the idea of being forced to do things in a ‘civilized’ way. Eventually, Huck’s abusive father manages to bring Huck back to his place where Huck escapes, fakes his own death, and begins life floating down the Mississippi. While on the river, he meets up with Jim, a runaway slave previously owned by the widow and her sister.

The middle of the book is largely episodic. Each episode can be demarcated by the return to the tranquility and safety of floating down the river on a raft. These episodes are mini-commentaries on a particular part of American culture. For example, there’s an episode in which Huck and Jim run into a gang trying to steal from a wrecked riverboat. Another episode involves a family feud similar to the archetypal Hatfield-McCoy feud. Yet another episode details the exploits of two grown con men as they ply their trade. The episodes serve as satires of the many ways that we become slaves to society. We become slaves to the desire to get rich quick. We become slaves to our deep-seated animosities. We become slaves to unthinking religion. Twain is calling for us to think for ourselves, act as individuals, and take action appropriately.

The over-arching plot of the book is the fate of Jim, the runaway slave. Huck Finn’s individualism and friendship for Jim battle with his upbringing and society’s expectations for him as he decides whether or not he will actively help Jim escape to freedom. It’s worth noting how Huck dismisses inaction as complicity in the predictable result and unworthy of himself. This in and of itself is a commentary on the society in which Huck Finn finds himself. Throughout the book Huck views civilization as something akin to a brainwashed malaise that everyone has accepted. Perhaps this is why his relationship with Jim and the actions he takes as a result of it are so important.

The ending of the book and the resolution of the main plot is bittersweet, which seems almost inevitable because of the book’s structure. There’s simply no river left to for Huck to escape to. Huck and Jim are both freer as runaways than they ever were before the story began or after it comes to an end. The strength of the book is the middle rather than the ending, and I won’t comment further on the ending simply to ensure that I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t read the book.

Twain’s home-spun style starting with the NOTICE on the first page and continuing throughout the book was particularly comforting for me because I have so many fond memories of visiting my extended family in North Carolina as a boy. They all spoke with strange accents and expressions that seemed so magical to me having been raised in the midwest. There was comfort, humor, and seriousness in those conversations that seemed unguarded and real. That’s what reading this book felt like to me, but I suspect that everyone will find some “southern comfort” in Twain’s story telling.

Twain is famous for walking that thin line between sly humor and moral outrage even to those who have not read his books. His dry wit and incisively worded commentary remain relevant for any free society because he is constantly reminding us that freedom and individual liberty aren’t achieved so much as they are maintained. If we aren’t vigilant in analyzing for ourselves the outcomes of our action or inaction, then we will become slaves to something. Twain points this out so masterfully and with such unique style in Huck Finn that I am forced to conclude that Huck Finn is the most American of the books I’ve read for this challenge thus far.

Five books down; eight to go!

My books in the challenge thus far are:
July 2009: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
August 2009: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
September 2009: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
October 2009: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
November 2009: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)

Consistent Governing

Posted on June 17th, 2009 in Politics and Law | No Comments »

One of the first things I learned about baseball was that the umpire is extremely important to the integrity of the game. If the ump doesn’t honor the game by trying to call balls and strikes as consistently and accurately as possible, then it’s not worth playing because no one would know what to expect from pitch to pitch. Although both consistency and accuracy are important, consistency is more important than accuracy because every ump has a slightly different strike zone, but if they call things the same way on both teams, then the game is fair. Both teams agree on this; it’s not even up for debate. If umpires didn’t aim for consistency, then baseball would be a game about trying to convince the umpires to call pitches your way.

During his confirmation, the current Chief Justice of the United States said, “My job is to call balls and strikes not to pitch or bat.” It’s fair to ask: Do baseball’s roles for consistency and accuracy hold true for governments as well as umpires? At some level, is it more important that governments treat people as consistently as possible rather than as accurately as possible according to any one of the many different political positions citizens might have? Clearly accuracy is important, both in both baseball and governing. Umpires get fired if they aren’t at least accurate to some degree. A political system that disenfranchises half its population is too inaccurate to be considered fair no matter how consistent it is. However, at some level of marginal return, is it more important to be consistent than accurate?

Let’s look at two cases. First, consider the bailout of AIG. In mid-September of last year the U.S. Government poured billions of dollars into AIG in an effort to save the company from bankruptcy. Just a week earlier though, the U.S. Government declined to bailout Lehman Brothers, which was operating under similar circumstances. Second, consider the recent bankruptcy proceedings for Chrysler and General Motors. In the Chrysler bankruptcy, secured creditors are getting 30 cents for every dollar owed. In the General Motors bankruptcy, secured creditors are being paid in full. Secured creditors are guaranteed by law to be first in line, so it’s not crazy to say that these creditors were screwed when the Supreme Court decides not to hear the inevitable lawsuit. It’s not unreasonable to label this as a “deadly sin” in the well-settled area of bankruptcy law. I’m not even sure it’s hyperbole to say that this is the end of capitalism as we know it. It is, at the least, inconsistent governing, and I’m not the only asking for an explanation.

It’s easy to be distracted by debates about accuracy. For example, some may argue that secured creditors don’t have as strong a position as intimated by others. That’s a debate about accuracy: which position was right according to some standard. Debates about accuracy are important, but aren’t debates about consistent governing more important at some level? There were secured creditors in both cases, so why were the results different?

The main benefit of consistency is that it allows us to know what to expect. In February 2008, the U.S. Government decided to bailout Bear Stearns. At the time, economists like Russell Roberts wondered publicly if this was setting a bad precedent. Essentially, he disagreed with the decision to bailout Bear Stearns, but thought that the real harm was “the encouragement of recklessness and irresponsibility” down the road. This position disagrees with the accuracy of a particular government action and assumes consistency in future government actions. Precedent, whether good or bad, only has meaning if the government operates consistently.

The cases I’ve mentioned seem strikingly similar on the facts, and yet, they had distinct, different outcomes. As a result, they set no precedent. If we can’t be completely accurate, wouldn’t it help to at least be consistent? In fact, the only precedent that they might set is one of inconsistency regardless of party affiliation. The Lehman Brothers / AIG case was under the Republican Bush administration; the Chrysler / GM case was under the Democratic Obama administration. And yet, they were both handled just about as inconsistently as possible. Unfortunately, this may be the only kind of consistent governing we can expect.