April 21, 2004

Mutinous winds   {Comments: 0}

I've started a new blog at www.mutinouswinds.com about public speech, markets, and democracy. It's a group blog, and I have several great co-conspirators with interesting perspectives (and different from mine). I don't by any means plan to abandon this site; in fact, part of the compulsion to create the new site comes from my desire to develop locussolus more, and in new directions.

That said, I'm going to be out of town for the next week or so, and the limited online time I have will probably be spent first corresponding with my various employers and second over at Mutinous Winds for those critical baby steps. Forgive me if I'm silent here for a few days!

Mutinous winds, by the way, comes from this speech by Prospero in the final scene of The Tempest:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chaes the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew, by whose aid --
Weak masters though ye be -- I have bedimmed
The noontide sun. called forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea anbd th azured vault
Set roaring war to the dread-rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt: the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs plucked up
The pine and cedar; graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, ope'd and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have required
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their sense that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper tha did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
As they're so fond of saying, read the whole thing.
April 20, 2004

About that time...   {Comments: 0}

Today in Jim Leitzel's Regulation of Vice class someone brought up the fact that today is 4/20, and people were wondering where the significance of the number 420 comes from. I had always heard that it was the police code for a marijuana-related infraction (like 187 for a homicide), but then I started thinking that there must be different codes for different jurisdictions, since there are different laws.

Anyway, it turns out this business about a police code is a myth. Instead, the term seems to have originated with a group at San Rafael High School in California and has something to do with a statue of Louis Pasteur...

April 15, 2004

The waxwing slain   {Comments: 0}

Vladimir Nabokov may have had a dirty little secret: the plot for Lolita was apparently taken from a 1916 story by the same name. The Nabokov family is denying it of course, while some experts are making the case that Nabokov could have appropriated the elements subconsciously. It all seems a bit silly to me. Half of high literature is intertextual reference; nobody seems to mind that a character called Hamlet was around before Shakespeare wrote his play. And if Nabokov did read and forget the story (which seems unlikely, given some of the other mental feats he accomplished), who cares? His Lolita transcends her plot.

Ron Rosenbaum has the most interesting take: with the greedy enthusiasm of a sophomore lit major, he recasts the whole criticism of Pale Fire in light of this new revelation. Shade and Kinbote are Nabokov and von Lichberg, the pseudonymous author of what's now being called the Ur-Lolita. It's a fun thesis...

On the dole   {Comments: 0}

Did my taxes in record time last night, in part thanks to technology, but mostly just because I had almost no income this year. In fact, in my last full year as a grad student, I made so little that for the first time ever I qualified for the EITC. Let me tell you, as someone who knows: it feels good to be on the receiving end of a government program.

Before someone mistakes my glee for sarcasm or willful free-riding, I should say that my enthusiasm is for the program, not for the tiny check that will pay for about 12 minutes of my political strategy class on Monday. EITC is probably the second most successful poverty reduction program in American history (after Social Security). It's the only thing that allows our tax code to even approach fairness, since as a percentage of income so much more of the tax burden is shouldered by the working poor these days. Not only does it redress the built in inequities of FICA and sales tax, but it does so inconspicuously, in a way that doesn't offend one's pride and dignity. That is, unless one blogs about it.

April 14, 2004

These things called changes   {Comments: 0}

I'm a couple days late on this, but the wonderful A Frolic of My Own has moved to a new location. Todd is using this adorable bit of open-source software to manage it, and if I weren't already set up and comfortable, I'd be thinking of switching myself.

On a semi-related note, the use of a cute Technorati piggyback is starting to proliferate, and as I'm designing a new blog at the moment, I have to figure out whether I want to use it. For aesthetic reasons I don't really want multiple lists of referrers floating around, so I'm trying to choose between this new functionality and Trackback. Technorati probably catches more links, but it doesn't have Trackback's warning functionality or an easy way to display the links onsite. I guess I'm leaning toward using Technorati anyway, as a longtime user and a big fan of general interconnectedness, but I'm interested to hear what people think.

Oh: one other drawback for Technorati is that when you don't have any links, it actually says Ouch! I'd install the thing here (where, if you'll notice, I don't have Trackback set up) but I'm not sure my ego could take it...

April 13, 2004

Miserable failure   {Comments: 0}

Just a couple quick notes on the Bush press conference/Kerry campaign ad shoot... I don't know what they were thinking putting him out there for questions like that. The speech was good enough (although his delivery left something to be desired), but the questions were tough and our president isn't too quick on his feet. His highlights (lowlights?) were:

  • repeatedly refusing to apologize for 9/11 or explain why he didn't need to;
  • not being able to point to a single mistake he's made since he entered office;
  • twice dodging the direct question about why he won't appear alone before the 9/11 commission (I can't believe they didn't prep him for this question, which was obviously going to be asked);
  • and referring to himself as "the ultimate decision maker for the country".
I hope the conventional wisdom that a 2nd term election is a referendum on the incumbent holds, because Bush is doing a hell of a job beating himself.
The Dean model   {Comments: 30}

I went to a fascinating and inspiring lecture last night (actually it was part of my political strategy class with David Wilhelm) by Rick Klau, one of the heavy lifters in the Dean campaign and probably one of the most credible voices in the country now on technology and political campaigning. He talked a little bit about his relationship with the Dean campaign, why and how he got involved, and where that involvement took him. More importantly, he outlined his vision of how technology worked for Dean, and how those innovations could and should be brought to other campaigns. He's written up the talk here, definitely worth a close read.

His central idea (and it will be familiar to those who followed the Dean campaign) was that today's technology doesn't lend itself to the kinds of command and control, hierarchical campaign structures that campaigns have traditionally employed. Instead, the internet is a medium that promotes conversation and has the potential to get people involved in ways they've never been able to before. There was the idea of first a weblog and then a weblog with a healthy and unrestricted comments section that could engage people and elicit real responses from the campaign. There was MeetUp.com, which allowed people to get together where they might not have known about each other before. But there was innovation in the organization of authority too: people could set up their own fundraisers, publicize their own campaign events, and get recognition from the campaign for their work.

What this did was create an atmosphere were people could engage the debate, make their voice heard, and get right into the thick of political culture, and it worked like a charm. Early on the campaign goals were people, money, and name recognition; this strategy yielded all three. And even though Dean eventually lost the primary, nobody will argue that his candidacy didn't energize the Democratic base and recast the other candidates, contributing in the most central way to what I hope will be a Kerry victory in November.

There is a case being made (even by me, in January) that all of this user-friendliness ended up working against Dean in the last moments before Iowa. Having all those Dean volunteers out there in orange hats or calling several times a day may have grated on the nerves of Iowans, may have pushed them to other candidates. There is no way of knowing, even now, whether all these thousands of volunteers exercised the necessary message discipline (this is a nice way of saying weren't crazy)or how much their presence damaged their candidate.

Rick rejected this view, actually making the opposite case. He attributes the meltdown to management mistakes at the top level of the campaign (mishandling the Gore endorsement, or going with a negative ad in the week just before the caucus) and to the candidate himself, whose delivery and message problems are by now well-documented. In his view, the problem was that in December, when things were starting to look bad, the top people changed their approach and didn't go back to the grassroots to get creative input, opinion, and buy-in. Instead, they floated along and tried to handle these problems centrally, which looked bad for a grassroots candidate like Dean and in any case wasn't what they'd shown they were good at. Rick didn't flesh out this idea too much, but my sense is that the establishment flavor imparted by Dean's frontrunner status and his high profile endorsements (esp Gore) changed the attitude of the central campaign figures, and that they didn't know how to manage a candidate in this position. So, instead of sticking with the game they'd played for months, they started to act like an establishment campaign.

I would definitely like to hear more from Rick and others on the way the campaign's approach changed toward the end, and whether the grassroots rank and file helped or hindered in the end. To me that has to be the central question of the campaign in terms of how influential this internet grassroots/buy-in model will/should be in the future. Does this organizational model work, or are there fatal inherent contradictions?

Several things greatly interest me about this, starting with the tension between the candidate and the campaign. Since only one person can actually be president and wield that power, the election is at least to some extent a referendum on the person, and if you're trying to make a campaign about participation and buy-in, there's a tension there. In the case of Howard Dean, maybe the tension was especially great. Sure, he had a great ability to generate enthusiasm and serve as a conduit for political outrage, but his public appearances were full of small blunders and he often wandered off message. Also he didn't have that talent for bringing people onboard that would have helped him incorporate and validate the views of a huge corps of volunteers. His anti-war message felt inclusive because so many people felt strongly about it and didn't have anywhere else to go, and certainly Dean's rhetoric energized them, but at least in my view he wasn't as good at articulating a positive political vision.

There's also this question: what would have happened had Dean been elected? Could he have maintained the same kind of participatory management style he used in during the campaign? My gut reaction is that there'd be no way to do this without fundamentally changing the nature of the executive. (For a senator or representative, a more participatory decisionmaking process seems much more natural, at least to me, since there isn't a specific management component to those positions. Advocacy fits in a lot better with what a senator or representative already does. Rick mentioned a couple of local races that are using a Dean-style approach, and it will be interesting to see how those campaigns are transformed when a candidate is elected. The system will have a lot going for it, in a legislative context.) A president makes huge management decisions based on information that the public doesn't or even can't have. involving people in that process, with incomplete information, and giving them the ear of the president, seems a little unbalancing. Certainly it upsets the rational ignorance with which most voters approach politics today, very possibly to the benefit of a talkative few, or in other words, special interests. I should be clear that I'm not arguing against access or transparency; these seem like good things. But the questions are complicated ones that don't answer themselves. Are we going to see a major transformation in the nature of the executive as office holders respond more and more directly to constituents?

I expect we will. The Dean model is so similar in my mind to the open-source movement and changes in information availability that are transforming other areas of our society and challenging our traditional understanding of markets. We're learning there is tremendous value in these kinds of participatory models that may not be adequately explained by rational decisionmaking and economics. These are processes that can't easily be subsumed by the market, but the benefits are potentially huge. Can they be incorporated into existing political and market structures? I don't know, but Iowa is a good place to start looking for the answer.

April 12, 2004

Help wanted   {Comments: 0}

I'm going to be starting a new group weblog, and I'm still looking for contributors. It will be a topical blog, focused on public speech and how it's shaped and limited by market forces, the press, and democratic institutions (so we'll be writing about media bias, campaign finance, truth in advertising, speech law, etc). So far the crew is pleasantly multidisciplinary, but we're still a little weak when it comes to journalists, lawyers, and business-types.

If you're interested in these issues and might want to contribute, please email me ASAP. The blog will probably launch in a week or so.

April 9, 2004

An unlikely alliance   {Comments: 0}

Tim Oliphant explains how unprecedented a Kerry/McCain ticket would be and outlines some of the difficulties:

Clearly, even the prospect of McCain under serious consideration for some kind of "national unity" ticket would be an earthquake event; this is something that has not happened in the 200 years of party elections in this country. For it to progress as an idea, discreet big shots would have to labor behind the scenes to construct an alliance; this is not simply a question of whether Kerry should consider asking McCain to serve or whether McCain should consider serving. In a way, that's the easy part, almost superficial.

The hard part would be defining the nature of such an unprecedented alliance. There would have to be a discussion about federal judges and about every major foreign and domestic challenge facing the country. It would be silly for them to bargain over policy details as if they were crafting legislation; however, it would be essential for them to agree on a basic approach and program, or the alliance would have no meaning.

I do think a lot of the talk about a Kerry/McCain ticket seriously underestimates the historical significance and political complexity of such a move. But I'll go even further: I think the kind of coalition Oliphant is talking about is actually impossible. John McCain just doesn't have the political strength to bring any Republicans into the fold on this. Sure, he's trustworthy and shoots from the hip, but those are the same qualities that make him a maverick, an outsider in the Republican party. If he can't bring anyone with him, he just ends up looking like a traitor, which damages his credibility and belies any talk of "national unity".
April 8, 2004

Black swan   {Comments: 0}

Nassim Nicholas Taleb looks at the nature of risk and the unexpected and comes to some smart conclusions about the 9/11 commission's task. I'm very sympathetic to his view; I've never felt the attacks were foreseeable, and while there are some strange circumstances surrounding the attack and its immediate aftermath that still need to be explained, I've never expected this to end with a strong indictment of, for instance, the Bush administration.

But the commission is going in a different direction; as EJ Dionne points out, their questions today made it clear that they think this tragedy was preventable. Part of that assessment may hinge on information the public doesn't have yet; part of it may be explained by Mr Taleb's black swan. But the Bush administration's handling of the situation - their unwillingness to declassify documents or give the commission access to key players - has created new avenues for suspicion. They've been combative from the start, treating every step of the process as a political fight. That has made it seem like they have something to hide. And yet what can they be hiding? I'm not ready to believe they could reasonably have stopped the attacks, or that anybody else would have done a better job up to that point...

By the way, I should point out that there is another commission getting underway, one that won't present its findings until after November. For that commission and the war it's investigating, there won't be any hiding behind unforseeable, outlying risks. In that case, the administration took postive action (to the point of invading another country) based on incorrect intelligence, and for that someone must be held accountable.

April 7, 2004

Technological advance   {Comments: 0}

Zach Exley (of MoveOn fame) is Kerry's new online director. I can't speak to the legality of the move, which Republicans are criticizing because it implies a connection between MoveOn and the Kerry folks (a connection which seemed pretty obvious before...), and I expect the Supreme Court will rule on the whole 527 issue before too long. But this is a great move from the standpoint of online organizing. So far, the Kerry campaign seems to be viewing the internet as a fundraising medium, but Exley has experience with the kind of grass roots organizing and online mobilization that brought out the base for the primaries. This will make the difference in November.

Collateral damage   {Comments: 0}

Far be it from me to say US forces didn't actually need to fire missiles into a mosque today to defeat armed resisters in Falluja. From a tactical standpoint, urban warfare is about the messiest kind. The problem is that this is where we lose the "hearts and minds" of the larger Iraqi population. Destroying a mosque, no matter who's inside, is going to have psychic repercussions throughout the country, just like shutting down the Al Hawza newspaper did. If there's anywhere American blood is going to further the cause of Iraqi democracy, isn't it in defense of the institutions Iraqis hold dear?

April 6, 2004

100,000 servers   {Comments: 0}

Here's a fascinating post from skrenta about what's going on over at Google with their new GMail service (which, by the way, is under attack from privacy groups today). For some reason I find the idea that you could hold the entire surface web in RAM at the same time a little disturbing... maybe I need to write more?

UPDATE: Jason Kottke has some interesting thoughts on what Google's advantages are, and what their long term strategy might look like.

Bait & switch   {Comments: 0}

Taegan Goddard brings up an issue I've been wondering about in re the US Senate race in Illinois: what happens if a candidate drops out between now and the election? The word around the campfire is Jack Ryan's divorce papers hold some revelations that (assuming they come out) will torpedo his campaign. While Obama is taking the high road so far, Republicans are clearly worried this stuff will become public sometime before November, and as Rick Hasen points out, we may see some interesting constitutional battles over how a replacement candidate should be selected.

Real world responsibilities   {Comments: 0}

Sorry about the lack of posts. This quarter promises to be the busiest since I started blogging, what with having to find a job, tie up all the loose ends before I graduate, and prepare (organizationally? psychologically?) for my wedding at the end of June.

Meanwhile, just to spice things up, I've taken a job as the TA for Jim Leitzel's class on the regulation of vice. I'm not exactly an expert on this topic (!) but the class promises to be fun, and Jim seems like a great guy to work with (now, if I can only get him to add me to his blogroll...).

April 3, 2004

Contractual obligations   {Comments: 0}

The voices of The Simpsons are demanding more money, to the tune of $360,000 per episode. Most of the articles I'm seeing on this aren't too sympathetic to their demands, some even predicting the demise of the show as a result. But one thing none of the articles mention is whether or not the actors get paid when an episode gets syndicated. If they don't, it's hard to blame them for wanting more, especially after they were paid only $30,000 per episode for the first nine seasons.

$50 million   {Comments: 0}

This is fantastic news. My sense all along has been that the Democrats were completely overmatched in terms of finding $2000 donors, but apparently Bush's policies have inflamed opinion on the left so much that finding people who want to give is a cinch. Obviously this will directly help Kerry's ability to advertise, but it's also important as a cushion in case the courts find MoveOn and other similar supporting actors to be in violation of McCain-Feingold.

April 1, 2004

Language and power   {Comments: 0}

The Trib has an interesting piece on English and its cloudy future as a lingua franca. This comment might be the most illuminating for us monolingual Americans:

"Monolingualism ... is peculiar," [Graddol] told the Atlantic. "Taking a long-term historical view, I'm inclined to think that the European project (from the Renaissance onwards) that created the idea of the modern nation state, each with a single national language and that marginalized or suppressed linguistic diversity within national borders, will turn out to be a blip in history."
Just another way the internet and globalization are eroding the nation-state, I guess. But perhaps it's harder to see from inside America, with its strong borders and ineluctable cultural exports.
Finale of seem   {Comments: 0}

All this suggestion that yesterday's murder and mutilation of four American contractors was another Mogadishu is a little overblown. For one thing, I think Americans are much more aware and accepting of the fact that we're at war right now; we've been desensitized to this kind of violence through months of casualty reports trickling in. I don't think this means Americans are unconcerned or that the incident won't affect public opinion toward the war, but it certainly isn't going to bring the White House to adjust its military policy anytime soon, and it's hard to imagine a backlash beyond what we aleady have.

Another big difference with this incident is the way the media has handled it. Domestic US media has kept a pretty tight lid on the images, just like it's avoided covering the return of soldiers' coffins or maimed "medical evacuees". This failure may not even be corrected by foreign press in Iraq, who as we saw earlier this week are controlled by the provisional authority. But in any case, the flow of information this time means the images are a lot less in you face.

And then there's the whiff that these guys weren't really civilians, as the news reports have been so careful to point out. Calling them contractors somehow avoids the question of who they're contracted out to - almost certainly the military. It reminds me of the situation with the "civilians" who were taken hostage after their plane was downed over Colombia... calling them civilians was pretty misleading. Jeanne D'Arc has more on this.