Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: current events (page 2 of 18)

Page One

Gwen and I recently saw Page One, the documentary about the New York Times.

It was a sort of mile-high survey of the problems that most American newspapers are facing today. It was interesting watching it while the scandal surrounding Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloids is at its peak—Murdoch had nothing to do with the movie except extolling the iPad as the potential savior of the newspaper industry. The issues that the movie touched on—and there were so many that it didn’t really have much time to do more than touch on them—are all familiar to anyone paying attention to the news about newspapers—declining ad revenue, competition from online sources, the chummy, codependent relationship with power that leads to horrors like Judy Miller—but it was still very interesting seeing these discussed by the people directly affected by them.

Just as the movie hopscotched from issue to issue, it never quite developed a central thesis. But if a documentary can have a hero, this one definitely did in the person of David Carr. And if it can have one defining moment, this one’s came when he was on a panel talking about the future of journalism or something like that, clearly representing the old guard. At one point, Michael Wolff stands up and talks about how the world would manage without the New York Times. Then Carr gets up, shows a printout of the Newser.com (Michael Wolff’s project) front page; then shows the printout with all the stories sourced from old media ripped out, leaving nothing but a rough paper sieve.

There was talk about the role of the professional journalist vs citizen-journalists, of whether the civic function of newspapers actually makes business sense. There was a lot of talk about Twitter. Interestingly, not a lot about Facebook. The talk about blogs was mostly in the context of tabloid-grade professional blogs like Nick Denton’s properties—at one point, Denton is interviewed, and we see his “leaderboard”—the most popular current stories—on a big TV. None of the stories are news. They’re gossip.

For a brief moment, when blogs were new to most people, some people suggested that in the future everyone would have a blog and we’d get our news through legions of citizen-journalists, with some editorial control or artificial intelligence or something to make sure we as readers got the stuff that was of highest quality and greatest relevance to our interests. Technically, that’s possible. My friend Chip long ago set up the website Austin Bloggers, where anyone with a blog can post a link to their Austin-related postings. There’s definitely some good stuff there that’s too finely focused for traditional media.

But the idea that citizen journalists could replace professional journalists entirely was naive from the start, and since then, we’ve learned that most people, even if they are interested in sharing stuff online (and lots of people are), are not very interested in blogging per se.

I think there are two reasons for this: the effort and the reward. While it is possible to dash off a simple blog post, blogging software has not really encouraged this. The writing interface for this blog looks like this:

Admittedly, there are blogging systems that are simpler than this, but this is the system I’m using, and it’s a mainstream one. Contrast that with the posting interface for Twitter:

Even once you’ve got a blog set up, there’s just a lot more cognitive load in getting a post up.

And then there’s the payoff. With Twitter or Facebook, your friends are probably going to see what you write and can easily comment on it; if you’re writing something personal, it’s relatively easy to make it so that only your friends see it. There’s more of a message-in-a-bottle quality to a blog post. Friends are less likely to comment (partly because even the commenting interface is more complicated, thanks in part to comment spam in blogs), and making a blog post visible only to friends involves considerably more administrative overhead for the writer and readers. Live Journal, as easy as it is to ridicule as the repository for bad poetry by teenagers, got this right by providing a blogging platform with social-networking features built in.

And unfortunately, while Facebook and Twitter have displaced what might have otherwise been a lot of blogging, they have not adequately replaced blogging. They’re fine for ephemeral, off-the-cuff communication—better than a blog, I’d say. A friend’s Twitter or Facebook postings are like a running stream that I can dip into when I feel like it, but they don’t work as a repository for sustained writing—one the writing side, because Twitter and Facebook are designed for off-the-cuff and short writing, and on the reading side, because it’s relatively difficult to backtrack and look at previous postings. As a medium for citizen journalism, this means that Twitter can be useful as a channel for minute-by-minute breaking news (Facebook less so, because posts are more often hidden from those you don’t know even if they are on Facebook, and Facebook in general is walled off from the rest of the Internet), but worthless for anything longer than that—especially with Facebook, where it seems almost impossible to dig up an old post. The same is true for discussions on posts, so while Facebook is great for getting people talking, it’s lousy for looking back at what people were talking about. For superficial gossip-grade conversations, this is fine. For more substantial discussions that one might want to look back on, it’s a problem.

Google Plus is too new to have been discussed in the movie. It allows for longer-form writing than Twitter or Facebook. The fact that Google is behind it suggests that maybe old posts would be searchable (though right now, they aren’t). And Google already owns a blogging platform, Blogger. I’ll be interested in seeing how they play out.

The new GOP playbook

Republicans are philosophically opposed to the idea that government can play a useful role in the lives of citizens, or as Reagan put it, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'” During his administration, George II tried to prove time and again that government cannot be helpful, by appointing Michael “heckuva job” Brown to run FEMA or by appointing Young Republicans whose prior work experience amounted to working in ice-cream trucks as administrators overseeing large parts of Iraq’s economy.

Republicans do not currently have that appointive power at the national level, but in any case, they seem to have shifted strategies. Their current approach is fiscal. First, starve the government of funds by passing tax cuts (preferably one that disproportionately benefits their wealthy patrons). Then, discover a budgetary crisis that requires “hard choices” and cuts on the kinds of programs that benefit most people. Eventually, make the government small enough “to drown in a bathtub,” as Grover Norquist puts it, or “Texas is going to shrink government until it fits into a woman’s uterus,” as State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte put it.

We’ve been seeing it in action at the national level, and at the state level, here in Texas and more prominently in Wisconsin.

At the federal level, this graphic has been making the rounds lately, showing how tax breaks for the wealthy come very close to being balanced out by proposed cuts to job training, educational programs, etc.

Texas, which was previously praised for staying solvent in the face of the Great Recession, is now facing a $27 billion shortfall. The seeds of this shortfall were planted in 2006, with a change in tax rates that was known at the time to be problematic. But, as Forrest Wilder puts it, the budget shortfall is not the cause of pain. It’s the justification.

And then there’s Wisconsin, where Scott Walker claimed that he needed both budget austerity and union-busting (and then decided he could make do with just union-busting), despite the state’s Fiscal Bureau having concluded just a month before that that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

I’m sure some variation on this theme is happening in Michigan and elsewhere.

Are your papers in order?

The Arizona Governor recently signed a bill into law that will give law-enforcement officers in that state the authority to stop anyone they suspect of being an illegal alien to demand proof of citizenship or legal residence.

How do I prove I’m a U.S. citizen to a cop if he pulls me over? I plan on passing through Arizona later this year, so aside from the obvious outrage, this law is of practical concern to me.

I haven’t read the full text of the bill, but it includes the following passage:

A PERSON IS PRESUMED TO NOT BE AN ALIEN WHO IS UNLAWFULLY PRESENT IN THE UNITED STATES IF THE PERSON PROVIDES TO THE LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER OR AGENCY ANY OF THE FOLLOWING:
1. A VALID ARIZONA DRIVER LICENSE.
2. A VALID ARIZONA NONOPERATING IDENTIFICATION LICENSE.
3. A VALID TRIBAL ENROLLMENT CARD OR OTHER FORM OF TRIBAL IDENTIFICATION.
4. IF THE ENTITY REQUIRES PROOF OF LEGAL PRESENCE IN THE UNITED STATES BEFORE ISSUANCE, ANY VALID UNITED STATES FEDERAL, STATE OR LOCAL GOVERNMENT ISSUED IDENTIFICATION.

I do carry a Texas driver’s license, but I don’t recall whether Texas required “proof of legal presence,” and even if it did, how will an Arizona cop know that? Will cops be issued cheat-sheets showing what IDs are acceptable?

I wanted to cover my bases and know what documents would be sure to satisfy a cop that I’m a U.S. citizen, so I started calling around.

I called the Arizona Office of Tourism, figuring they’d want to make life easier for tourists. The people who answer the phone there are not equipped to do more than mail brochures, so that was not a productive avenue of inquiry.

I next called the Arizona Attorney General’s office. I spoke with a woman who was smart and informed, but was unwilling to give me an answer, as that would constitute giving a legal opinion, which I guess is something she can’t do. She recommended that I call the state’s law library and speak to someone there.

So I did. I got someone who was not especially fazed by my questions, but hadn’t read the bill and wasn’t able to offer any specific guidance. He suggested that I call the primary sponsor of the bill, State Senator Russell Pierce, and gave me his number (602-926-5760).

I called that number and got the senator’s voicemail. I left a brief message and am awaiting a response. I’m not holding my breath.

Austin Broadband Information Center

I recently wrote about the impending volume caps that Time Warner Cable will be imposing on its Austin customers, a move which has earned an angry reaction from many Austinites. I’ve seen an online petition in opposition to these caps. I’m not a customer of TWC, and frankly, I’d be just as happy for them to continue pissing off their customers, convincing more and more customers to leave, until TWC doesn’t have any customers left to worry about pissing off.

It is telling that TWC approvingly cites Canada as an example of bandwidth caps in action. Cory Doctorow, a Canadian citizen, has stated that he cannot live in Canada because Internet access there is so dismal. It is equally telling that TWC does not cite South Korea or Japan—where bandwidth that Americans can only dream of is common—as an example of the kind of Internet service they aspire to provide.

Anyhow, the tirelessly public-spirited Chip Rosenthal is actually doing something to help: he’s put together a website to serve as a clearinghouse on information on the subject: the Austin Broadband Information Center. Check it out.

They hate us

I’m starting to believe that American telecommunications companies actively hate their customers.

AT&T Mobility has just announced a change to their terms of service for 3G that basically makes any broadbandy use of it a violation of their TOS. Time Warner Cable has just announced monthly volume caps (these are sometimes called bandwidth caps, but that phrase strikes me as ambiguous), the highest of which will be 40 GB for $55 per month; overages will be priced at $1/GB.

Contrast this with Japan, where for about $35/mo, you can get a service with 47 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream. At maximum saturation, you’d burn through a 40 GB cap in 19 minutes. TWC’s lowest cap of 5 GB would take less than 3 minutes to burn through. Now, admittedly, nobody in the USA is getting that kind of bandwidth in the first place (I’m getting my carrier’s top level of service, which is about a quarter that speed up and down). And it should go without saying that NTT is not imposing any kind of caps on their service.

But wait, it gets better. Right now, Japan’s leading wireless carrier is field-testing the next generation in mobile broadband, a protocol called LTE (in the US, we call it 4G; over there, they call it 3.9G). This is running at 120 Mbps in their tests, and they plan on doubling that by the time it’s deployed commercially. At that rate, you could burn through a 40 GB cap in less than three minutes. Over the air.

American consumers are getting shafted by their telecommunications providers. Paying a nickel for a text message that costs exactly nothing to deliver is only the start. And let’s set aside spying on their customers for the NSA. With these increasingly restrictive terms of service and tariffs, I get the impression that carriers not only want to limit our expectations, they want to lower them.

I can’t explain the difference in pricing and service between American and Japanese companies, I can only speculate. And my speculations sound like a conspiracy theory.

Over the last ten or so years, we’ve seen Enron used as an inspiration for running the entire economy. A friend who used to be a muckety-muck at a cellphone maker said that telecommunications companies ultimately want to move towards a tithing-based pricing model—where you pay them a certain fraction of your income.

I have to imagine that in the boardrooms of AT&T and TWC, they rub their hands with glee at how they’re finding new ways to screw over their customers, just as Enron traders chortled over “aunt Tillie” sitting in the dark because they had engineered a power outage. That may sound over the top, but there’s definitely something about these companies that makes them want to provide the shittiest service they think they can get away with, not the best that is technologically possible.

And the thing about communications is that there’s really no way to “save up” those bits or bytes. Every second that fiber is dark is a second you can’t get back. Volume caps create an artificial scarcity where none exists.

Blago

Imagine you are the governor of a fairly large state. After a historic election, a Senator from your state and member of your party has just been elected President. The incoming Senate will be close to—but not quite at—a cloture-proof majority. The incoming President will be facing a historic crisis, is enjoying unprecedented levels of goodwill, and ran as a transparent, clean-government candidate. It is your job to appoint his successor. Do you:

  • Appoint a caretaker who will step down in two years when the term ends, to avoid giving an appointee the advantages of incumbency (which, as it turns out, may not be such a big deal)?
  • Appoint someone who will be a strong candidate able to keep the seat for your party?
  • Attempt to shake down the President-elect, creating an aura of guilt-by-association for him, threatening the ability of the incoming administration to get work done, and weakening your party in your state?

If you picked #3, congratulations, you’re Rod Blagojevich. You’re also a fucking moron.

The fact that Blago did this over a phone that he knew was being bugged speaks not only to his obvious corruption, it is a sign of his deep, deep stupidity. The idea that he’d try to wring some mean little personal advantage out of the situation is obviously corrupt, but also shows his inability to see beyond his own nose: wouldn’t it be better all around to be in the good graces of the President? My former classmate (and let me tell you, it is very weird seeing her on TV) Lisa Murray Madigan is seeking to have him removed from office on the grounds that he can’t serve.

Forget about corruption. This guy is too dumb to breathe without assistance, much less serve the people of Illinois.

Mutts like me

In an his first press briefing as president-elect, Barack Obama referred to shelter dogs as “mutts like me.” Apart from the bracing self-deprecation, that offhand remark resonates for many Americans, who consider themselves mutts and are proud of it. Indeed, in a melting-pot society, what could be more American than being a mutt?

There’s some sublime conceptual jiu-jiutsu in this phrase. The enlightened position is that race is a cultural construction. We know that there is more genetic diversity among the members of one race than between races, and the lines separating one race from another are arbitrary. For America’s first black president and first biracial president—the fact that both of these are valid statements reinforces the arbitrariness of race—to identify himself in this way turns his race, which could be a point of division, into a point of commonality.

I like that. I decided it should be on T-shirts. And now it is. Go get yourself one.

The text is set in Gotham, the typeface used in Obama’s campaign materials. The dog is Suki, and I worked up the image from a photo taken by my friend and his person, Casey.

We won—now what?

It’s been hard for me to organize my thoughts about this election, and I won’t even try to cram them all into one blog post. Suffice to say I am very pleased with the outcome.

The big question in my mind is “now what?” When Bush was re-elected in 2004 with a razor-slim margin in both the popular and electoral vote, he claimed a mandate; he and his party were remarkably corrupt and high-handed in government. Obama has been elected with a healthy margin in the popular vote and a near-landslide in the electoral vote, despite which he is taking a conciliatory, cautious tone. But he was elected on a message of change, and right now, with national and world events such as they are, change is going to happen—the question is whether he’ll be engineering the changes or be tossed around by them. Hope has gotten him this far. Now is the time for audacity.

When one party has had the run of Congress and the White House, they’ve tended to overreach and then get beat down in short order. One time when this conspicuously was not the case was during the Great Depression, when one party in the legislative and executive took bold action that was met with public approval. Everyone in the news telling us that our current economic peril is like nothing since that time.

And then there’s the Republicans. Shortly before the election, I wrote a comment on Metafilter that when the GOP is reduced to a bunch of anti-gay, anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-rest-of-the-world populists, it becomes self-limiting and easy to dismiss. If the USA had a GOP that stood mainly for things like limited government and fiscal responsibility—Eisenhower Republicans, you could say—it might bring something useful to the table.

Having lost the presidency and seen their contingents in the House and Senate reduced, the GOP is now in the introspection and wound-licking mode. One might hope that those Eisenhower Republicans would stand up and guide their party back to sanity. As Paul Krugman predicted, one would be disappointed. I had previously thought of RedState as one of the saner right-wing community sites. And they’re not as frothingly mad as, say, Free Republic (where some members were suggesting that Obama killed his own grandmother), but it is clear they have allied themselves with what we might call the Palin wing of the GOP: anti-gay, anti-science, anti-abortion, anti-rest-of-the-world, and from what I’ve read, party leaders are headed in that direction as well. If this really happens, it guarantees that the party will marginalize itself not only in terms of its representation in Washington, but in terms of its relevance to the country at large and questions of policy. Politics benefits from multiple viewpoints, but only when all of those viewpoints are founded on informed, open-minded, and reality-based positions.

The Democrats are not going to have a supermajority in the Senate, so the Republicans there may choose to gum up the works with filibusters. They may choose to sit back and watch while the Democrats screw things up (or so they will hope). They may not be able to filibuster at all if a few of their more moderate members decide to play along with the Democrats and the Democrats manage to maintain party unity. There may even be a few party-switchers coming over the to Democrats, as there were going the other way following the Republican revolution in 1994. If the GOP takes a more dogmatic tilt, this seems likely.

There’s a lot of work for Obama to do. There’s a lot that his supporters are expecting from him. And there may be little standing in the way of his taking bold action. He’s already made history and moved the country forward simply by being elected. I hope he keeps the momentum up.

Thought for the day

John McCain may find there is not much distance between leading an angry mob and being chased by an angry mob.

Pretty soon you’re talking real money

There are about 7.5 million subprime mortgages floating around in the USA right now. These are at the root of the current financial crisis, for which Paulson has proposed a $700 billion bank handout bailout.

Note that he wants to give the money to the banks. After the banks get that money, the borrowers are still going to be in default.

I realize the situation isn’t as simple as this, but just for grins, let’s attack the problem from the other end. The bailout amount works out to a little over $90,000 per subprime mortgage (not all of which are in default, but let’s include all of them anyhow). Imagine if the government forced the banks holding all those toxic loans to rewrite them as fixed-rate mortgages at reasonable rates, and set up what Republicans like to call a “personal account” for each homeowner with a subprime mortgage. Stick that $90,000 in the account, let it accrue interest, and use the principal and interest to supplement the amount that the homeowner can pay. Suddenly the mortgages look a lot more viable to the banks, which would restore liquidity to the market. And people don’t get thrown out of their homes.

I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical reason why this kind of welfare is bad, but the kind of welfare Paulson wants is good.

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