When blogs do real investigative journalism, there's a distinct benefit to the form.
Newspaper and magazine investigative pieces tend to be really long. Journalists are assigned to cover an issue in-depth for months, and then fill pages with detailed name, date, and fact-filled paragraphs At the risk of seeming shallow, I have a hard time getting throught them.
Ordinary stories tend to be short, written by journalists who have cursory familarity with the issue and tight deadlines, drawing on press releases, standard stories, and conventional wisdom. There are a some strong "beat" reporters who are an exception to this rule. Unless you're strongly interested in the topic to begin with, they are harder to find, since their stories "look" like every other story.
The blog form is different. When blogs are doing real investigative reporting and analysis, they'll cover a topic in small bites, day after day. A reader can learn the players and the vocabulary, gradually, and gain an understanding of the topic over time.
Contra the "A-list" stereotype, it's easy to find these people. A quick Google or Technorati search will find bloggers who write about a topic. It's easy to zoom in on people who sound cogent. Then follow their blogroll and the people they link to. Put a couple in an RSS reader. And soak up domain knowledge.
Grits for Breakfast just won a Koufax award for best single-issue lefty blog, for its coverage of criminal justice reform in Texas. Scott Henson's blog includes original research and insightful coverage of an important issue that is badly undercovered by the mainstream media.
The Koufax awards inspired others to share links of favorite niche blogs.
Meanwhile, Salon picked up the Daou Report, a compilation of thumbnail clips from political blogs, right and left. Skimming the Daou Report, I get a headache from the snippets of insults -- "The Petulant Left", "wingnuts plan to keep women scared", back and forth like 4th grade recess.
Complaints about the dreck in the blogosphere are missing the point. There's infinite space -- anyone can choose to read good sources like Scott, easily find other good sources, and ignore the spitball fights.
At the urging of Aldon Hynes, I just got around to watching EPIC 2014 -- the flash-animated dystopia about the death of the news. I'm less worried about this dystopia than other scenarios of doom.
Epic tells a history of a future in which by 2014, the New York Times is displaced by GoogleZon, an algorithmically-generated stew of peer-created content, narrowly personalized to the preferences of the individual user.
But the big threat to the New York Times isn't Google News, which links to traditional news sources. People who get their news from Google wind up reading more traditional sources than people who just read their local paper.
EPIC envisions an AI that constructs news stories themselves, not just a portal to existing stories. But the AI to write an interesting story is a lot harder than the AI to assemble a page of stories based on a popularity algorithm.
The passive faith in AI is belied by the real process of using Amazon recommendations and Technorati today. Amazon algorithmically assembes a set of recommended books, each with a set of human-written recommendations. The reader critically sifts through the recommendations, separating the cogent from the illiterate. If Amazon were building its recommendation service, the recommendations would be linked to deeper blog and profile information about the reviewer, providing further material to check trustworthiness.
Meanwhile, the formulaic crime-and-accident coverage of today's local news might as well be written by a bot. In-depth coverage by special-interest bloggers not infrequently beats the shallow, formulaic coverage of the mainstream media.
Also, I don't think personalization is as big a problem as EPIC makes it out to be, although folks have been worried about it since Nicholas Negroponte popularized "The Daily Me" in the mid-90s. Social networks with external links can broaden cultural reference at least as much as they shrink them, and surely more than the narrow mass media. I can get more diverse music references in a couple of hours with iTunes, LastFM, Webjay, Amazon and Google than in a lifetime with ClearChannel.
Not to mention the fact that newspaper circulation has been falling since the 60s, under competitive pressure from radio and TV. EPIC deplores and bemoans a world where the news is shallow and sensationalistic -- but that world was created by TV "disaster-of-the-day" coverage.
The big threat is from Craigslist, which cannibalizes the classified ad revenue that accounts for the newspapers' profit margin. Good investigative journalism takes money and time. Journalist need money to eat. It's an open question whether alternate business models -- different from the classified and space ads in traditional newspapers -- will generate enough money to keep investigative journalism afloat.
At the hearings last week, Chairman Phil King asked why governments should provide network access, when the same service can be provided by private enterprise.
Prof. Lawrence Lessig answered this question in Wired Magazine last week.
Ever think about the poor streetlamp companies, run out of business because municipalities deigned to do completely what private industry would do only incompletely? Or think about the scandal of public roads: How many tollbooth workers have lost their jobs because we no longer (since about the 18th century) fund all roads through private enterprise? Municipal buses compete with private taxis. City police departments hamper the growth at Pinkerton's (now Securitas)... If private industry can provide a service, however poorly or incompletely, then ban the government from competing. What's true for Wi-Fi should be true for water.
There's a range of services like roads, transportation and security, where the government provides services. Even though there are private-sector alternatives, the government plays an major role in providing these services, because they are "public goods".
The government even put the private streetlamp industry out of business, because it was so much more effective to have city lights on every street than a patchwork of lights in front of a few businesses and rich people's houses.
The conservative movement is right to question and scrutinize the functions that government provides. The failure of Soviet factories and farmes proved that private enterprise is better at most economic activities.
But there are functions like roads, streetlights, police services, and in the 21st century, network access, where the government has a justifiable and important role to play.
When I started working to oppose the municipal wireless ban with EFF-Austin, I wasn't convinced it was a constitutional issue. As I got more involved, I realized how important it was to constitutional freedoms.
The justification comes from Prof Lawrence Lessig's insight that an information-age society is governed by law code and computer code. The law tells us what we may do, and the computer code supplies us with the choices.
The printing press made it possible to have the communication and free speech to support democracy. Internet access is a major enabler for free speech in our time. Banning community wireless is, among other bad things, a significant threat to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.
I do public interest tech policy volunteer work with two affliations: the ACLU-TX cyberliberties project, and EFF-Austin. ACLU-TX has signed on the to the list of groups opposed to the municipal wireless ban.
Malcolm Gladwell's Blink contains fascinating insights into the relationship between experience and intuition.
The book is about the power and limits of snap judgements. In the first chapter, a set of experts feel instantly repelled by a showy new Getty museum acquisition which turns out to be a fake. Their snap judgements trumped months of expensive studies from the Getty. The "snap judgements" of the aniquarians, though, had been honed in decades of experience with antiques.
Psychologist John Gottman is able to instantly detect the likely success of a marriage, and Paul Ekman is able to instantly read faces. The snap judgement skills of both of these psychologists has been honed by the results of years of study that taught them what signs to focus on.
In Blink, two factors play into overcoming the weaknesses of snap judgement.
Education is the first. John Gottman's method, developed through years of study, can be taught to novices. The lethal snap judgements that led cops to kill an innocent, frightened Amadou Diallou in New York and use excessive force after car chases can be improved by police procedures that give cops extra seconds to respond to problems.
Resistance to stereotypes is the second. Classical orchestras started hiring many more women as soon as they started holding blind auditions. A superior car salesman resists pre-judging his customers based on appearance -- a grimy farmer is a millionaire, and a ratty-looking teenager has wealthy parents.
This book complements (and cites) one of my favorite books, Gary Klein's Sources of Power, which tells stories about how experts really make decisions -- not with analytical process, but with educated intuition.
Gladwell's book fills in what Klein's book was missing -- a picture of how the process of training helps to hone the intuitive process, by generating a large mental database of relevant expertise, plus a rapid feel for the salient points that jump out from a pattern.
Gladwell's book is less explicit about the thesis than this review. Literary training and perhaps New Yorker style leads Gladwell to a lively, story-based approach. Which is a bit too bad, because it might lead some people to miss the key insight about the relationships between intuition and experience.
(Ross, this was my airplane reading from Seattle).
A bill in Indiana to prohibit cities and towns from offering wireless networks died in committee on Wednesday. The story is good news for advocates of community networks in Texas. The ban that failed in Indiana is similar to a provision being heard at the Texas House Regulated Industries next week.
Indiana cities and towns made a compelling argument that the networks help economic development. For example, , the town of Auburn, Indiana (pop. 6000) was able to save jobs in local automotive repair and medical transcription business as a result of a municipal wireless network.
The story of Auburn, like many other small towns, belies the telco claim that the municipal wireless bans are in the public interest. As reported by Muniwireless, "The town approached Verizon about bringing broadband to their community, but the latter told them that there were not enough residents to make it worth Verizon's trouble."
Muni Wireless reports on about Neigbornode, an bulletin board application managed by a group of NYU students and alumni, and publicized by New York City Wireless that allows neighbors to post for-sale items and gossip.
The guy behind the software is John Geraci a grad student at NYU who also did the Grafedia project, which connects 3d graffiti with online images. It doesn't do the technically cool thing of associating the online graffiti with spacial coordinates. Instead, it uses a hobo code to mark the graffiti, and fellow cyberhoboes can find the link and associated images on the net.
Ross Mayfield offers an insightful critique of the limits of personalization, which has long been seen as the premier way to make content more valuable. This is a very good point -- the flaw with the "daily me" is that it restricts my information flow to things I know aready.
I think they go together nicely. Social filtering lets you branch out, experiment, grow, and learn from the tastes and interests of your friends and colleagues.
Personalization is still needed to manage focus amid vast quantities information, even considering the collaborative input of friends and colleagues. I value Ross's links on social software and business trends, and Rick's political tales, but would less interested in socially filtered feed of sports scores. (Sorry guys!).
I think about it with a spacial metaphor. You want a familiar starting point, and a set of directions to explore, where the interests of your social network represent roads out.
Ben Franklin would have loved public wireless. Ben Franklin was an entrepreneur who saw the connection between private enterprise and public infrastructure.
Franklin created a thriving printing business, seizing opportunities in a colonial economy hungry for news and education. But there was no reliable way to send newspapers to customers. It could take weeks or months for a message to cross the colonies.
So Franklin helped to set up the postal service, which provided regular mail delivery, and stimulated both business and civic life.
Franklin also helped to set up volunteer fire brigades that would battle all fires, regardless of whose property was burning. Before the volunteer fire brigades, wealthy people created fire clubs that would put out the fires of duespaying members. But when a poor person's house or workshop caught fire, the whole neighborhood could burn. Franklin saw that a public fire protection service would protect everyone.
Roads, street lights, and fire protection are civic services that provide overall benefits to civic life and economic development. Municipal wireless has the potential to be an amenity that creates spillover economic development.
Innovative communities are experimenting with municipal wireless, like Colonial Philadelphia experimented with fire protection in the 1700s, and cities experimented with street lights in the late 1800s.
But the telecom industry wants to stop these experiments before they get started. They want to make it illegal to provide wireless service as a public amenity.
Imagine if all streets were toll roads. Imagine if it was considered illegal, and radical, for a city or town to build public roads?
Conservative philosophy provides a valuable critique of the role of government. It's important to critically examine what government does and get the government out of businesses where the private sector does a better job. In today's American politics, efforts to reduce government spending and foster enterpreneurial growth have overshot the mark.
When the Founding Fathers started this nation, they had a strong sense of the common good. They valued liberty of conscience, and freedom for economic self-determination (with a large blind spot). And they saw that individual and prosperity were fostered by public service, and by public services which promoted the general welfare.
The initiative to ban public wireless goes against the patriotic spirit of Ben Franklin, who fostered the development of civic services that were complementary to economic development, private enterprise and liberty.
In a way, I'm glad that the mainstream media and the R's are underestimating Howard Dean, making jokes about "the scream", hordes of latte-swilling leftists with bad hair, and wacky radical ideas.
Meanwhile, Dean's platform calls for rebuilding the party from the ground up, supporting candidates in local elections, building a message bottom up.
Thanks to this webjay roots playlist from Prentiss, and this inspirational Lessig article about free culture and live music extravaganza with the popstar turned minister, I've been having much fun rummaging through Gil's 5-decade online mp3 discography.
Looks like it will take Portuguese to get beyond thumbnail reviews and hagiography.
Addition: Gil speaks about digital freedom at NYU before his Creative Commons conference:
I think that the most important political battle that is being fought today in the technological, economic, social and cultural fields has to do with free software and with the method digital freedom has put in place for the production of shared knowledge.
An omnibus telecom bill in Texas is seeking, among other things, to ban municipalities from offering wireless services. Currently, Austin has a project to provide wireless in public places.
The attempt to forbid cities and towns from offering wireless services is seriously misguided.
Public wireless is like roads and street lights. Like roads, public wireless access enables economic development. When a road is paved, houses and businesses spring up around it. When an urban area has street lighting, business and civic life continues into the night.
Most streets aren't toll roads, and street lights don't have a fee per block. These services are generally accepted to provide public benefit above and beyond the revenue they would bring if they relied on fee-for-service funding.
Networking is in an early stage, like street lights were a long time ago. Cities and towns ought to be able to make their own decisions about what will bring economic development to their area. Each municipality makes its own decisions about roads and public transportation. Similarly, the decision about whether and how to provide wireless services should be a local decision. We don't want to *prevent* cities and towns from choosing to provide wireless as a service that will incent additional economic activity. We don't want to mandate one model, for the whole state, in an early stage of development.
Witold Rybcynski, the writer and scholar of architecture, really likes Celebration, the Disney-built planned town in Florida that raked in controversy for its venture into privatized civic life.
Rybcynski visit and admires the comforting, human-scale houses, streets and sidewalks...
and the thoughtfully laid out parks
and considers it the honest heir to classic garden suburb development in the early 1900s.
The worry about Disney's Celebration wasn't about the buildings and streets (which seem genuinely humane), but about the civic structure -- Disney's attempt to build resort-level quality control over the road, school, and social hall fabric of life.
My question about Celebration, a decade later, is how and whether it is evolving from a housing development into a town.
A paper by UT professor Miles Efron shows that links do a better job at differentiating between left and right wing blogs than words do.
US left and right wing blogs might both mention "social security" or "iraq" but they would express different opinions. But those blogs would be likely to cite different sources.
This has interesting implications for persuasion. Lakoff would argue that to persuade a conservative of a more traditionally liberal position, one would appeal to that conservative's nurturant side.
Efron's results suggest that it's not enough to invoke compassion -- it might help more to cite the Heritage Foundation.
Apparently Nashville's fragile country diva was modeled after Lynn. The Nashville soundtrack itself is mostly mediocre 70s folk-cheese, except for cameo appearances of Vassar Clements, next up on the playlist, and a few other, lesser known real live bluegrass bands doing background music.
Skimmed another dating service form that asks for favorite romantic music, and what objects are found in one's bedroom. It is infinitely more fun to surf the music of one's cultural influences and one's friends than to script a romantic encounter with an unknown stranger, complete with music, lighting, and stage props. Finding common ground and discovering new ground is joyful; describing a stage set for an anonymous other is chilling.
Years ago, I learned the art of the job interview; how one is supposed to answer when the question is "tell me about yourself", or "tell my why you left your last job". The interviewer is looking to find relevant qualities and skills for the job at and, and figure out, in a few unrepresentative minutes, how you'd be to work with.
I'm sure there's a corresponding art to the dating service profile. I'd be a lot better off if I conceded to the process of marketing, packaging, and product positioning. I really hate turning a process of joyful discovery into a short-answer quiz where there are right and wrong answers.
Vassar Clements Living With the Blues now on, just fabulous.
Guns, Germs and Steel makes a primary argument that Eurasian societies were able to dominate American and southern societies because of advantages in geography and climate -- not because of genetic superiority.
What I liked best about the book, though, wasn't this thesis. It was the amassing of a broad, integrated picture of the development of human culture, using evidence about food, language, migration, and disease, from a range of historical disciplines including archaeology, genetics, historical linguistics, and synthesis of historical sources. It was breathtaking to see a single animated picture across the 10,000 years of the spread of human culture since the emergence of agriculture, like a time series animation of an lunar eclipse or the flowering of a rose.
Come to think of it, I think there are two main functions needed for managing large numbers of online connections.
The first is the butler, for managing incoming requests.
The second is the reminder service for monitoring the news and recurring events for online acquaintances, and providing reminders for occasional events like birthdays, job changes, and more frequent events like blog posts and wiki updates.
The interface for this would be a more subtle version of an aggregator notification service. This upgraded notifier would provide visibly stronger notification for dramatic events and for those closer in the circle, and weaker signals for ordinary events and those further away.
The notifier would aggregate signals from multiple sources, enabling one to monitor more people and more sources in a shorter amount of time.
One tactic that comes to mind for managing online connections is the automated equivalent of an 18th/19th century butler, who mediated social interaction for the wealthy at a time when the intrusive, in-person visit was a primary method for making social contact.
The butler has broad and nuanced knowledged of the circumstances in which the Lady is to be acknowledged to be IN.
Today's online presence indicators are flat; they tell everyone the same message; that one is working, or eating ice cream in front of the television, or AWAY.
A butler would understand whether one is working or not, and would put through different connections at different hours.
A butler would understand the understand the nuances of one's social circle, and admit some people automatically, allowing others to wait, and requiring still others to leave a message.
We also need the 18th/19th century interface to the Butler, the calling card, which conveys by its printed message and accompanying whether the caller is a longlost relative whom the butler may not remember; a recommendation from a reputable source; a specific message about the urgency of the visit.
Along with butlers and calling cards would come social norms for interpreting the signals -- when a calling card is a polite formality; when to interpret the declining of a visit as a crippling snub and when as scheduling circumstance. Even with a butler, there will be mistimings and misunderstandings, yielding to new materials for comedy and drama.
Went with David Nunez to a travelling exhibition of "urban art"; paintings on 3' x 8' panels that draw on genres of subway car graffiti, comic books and 70s album covers, with a live painter and dj. The art was mostly from LA and New York, with smatterings of Chicago and San Francisco. Interesting, the LA art was more pop:
The New York art drew more on classic graffiti style:
The show was a third art, a third party, and a third reality tv commercial. The travelling show is put together by "The Rebel Organization, Inc... an 'off-line' viral marketing and promotion company that specializes in connecting brands to the progressive youth culture. "
There were several people in black clothing with fancy-looking cameras and sound gear, presumably making the video. Austin's clusters of designers, art school kids, theater marketing folk, and art party scenesters did their best to provide authentic artsy-looking ad footage.
You can't complain too loudly about corporate sponsorship. Michelangelo had some really good gigs advertising the Catholic Church. Subcultures are all part-community, part scene. On the other hand, it's kind of odd being a prop to advertise a car that's being sold to wannabe hipsters.
Rushmore had more eccentricity and more heart than The Royal Tenenbaums. The main character is Max, played by Jason Schwartzman, a 15-year old scholarship student at a private school who ringleads theater, debate club, beekeeping, calligraphy, fencing, and other extracurricular activities, while on the verge of failing academically.
The character is a combination of precocious, pretentious, and naively awkward; he's young enough to make lots of embarrasingly painful mistakes, and old enough to cause real damage. He makes friends with a middle-aged millionaire, played by Bill Murray in a midlife secondary-adolescent funk, and they vie with comic and occasionally life-threatening ferocity for the affections of an elementary school teacher.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters' eccentricities were mostly surface, with an internal anomie that was partly the point, and partly just dull. In Rushmore, the eccentricity dramatizes the typical adolescent desire to borrow an identitity through symbols -- a school, a band, fashion; the heart lies in the traversing the path from the hero-worship to relationship.
Like the Tenenbaums, the psychological trajectory involves a main character who starts as a chronic liar and becomes just a little bit more honest. Rushmore's Max doesn't give up his wacky grand schemes, but is able to assimilate just a bit to reality; he admits that his dad is a barber, not a neurosurgeon, he dates a classmate who's a fellow geek, he gets passing grades in public school.
The film has many great scenes; the crew breaking ground for an aquarium, above the protests of the baseball coach; a highschool play set in vietnam, with potted palms and explosions with dynamite; the main character's preppy sidekick, having come to apologize, sitting in Max's dad's barber chair; Bill Murray, watching his wife flirt with a party guest, tossing golfballs into a pool.
Chris Allen writes about a contemporary dilemma: how to manage hundreds of connections in online social networks. It's today's version of a problem that's as old as the first city; how to live in groups much larger than the families and tribes we're wired to understand.
Chris Allen wrestles with the dilemma of how to manage a social network with hundreds of acquaintances:
As someone who now has over 171 professional "connections" in my LinkedIn Profile, 198 "friends" on Orkut, many more non-intersecting friends and acquaintances on Tribe.Net, LiveJournal, and other social networking services, as well as a plethora of correspondents that I only interact with via email, I am trying reconcile a mismatch between my connections and my own Dunbar Number.
Joi Ito has complained of the opposite problem -- running into maximum number of allowable friends on Orkut and AIM, and also of the same problem: "I need to forget someone every time I meet someone I want to remember because I'm having a buffer overflow on my people recognition memory."
Like physical cities, online networks bring people into contact with numerous casual acquaintances.
Entire genres of writing evolved to explore the opportunities, risks, and emerging norms of urban social life. Ben Franklin pioneered techniques of self-organization and civic organization for the new world of capitalist opportunity and democratic obligation; his advice manuals and autobiography spread the gospel.
The 19th century novel (think Great Expectations and Sister Carrie) deal with themes of a stranger coming to the city, establishing bonds of trust or being lured by con games. Dale Carnegie, writing in 1937, wrote a self-help manual for urban aspirants eager to learn the lucrative art of networking.
danah boyd often critiques the awkwardnessful interfaces of online social network tools, which automate plaintive requests for friendship and guilt-inducing demands for favors.
Chris suggests tools that will help people manage attention to a social network:
Could simple categorization help improve expectations for attention levels that various associates receive from you? Are there ways that social networking services, acting as an intermediary, could better manage disappointment-inducing events, such as a decision to spend less attention on an associate?.
Tools will surely be helpful. Databases have long helped salespeople remember the names of the children and pets of their customers. Tools can surely be improved. The Linked In form for passing on a reference request is a social horror -- it turns the pleasant, virtuous, social capital-building experience of recommending a friend into a guilt-inducing, bureacratic obligation.
Chris Allen also rightly points out that the problem isn't just in the interfaces, it's in the social situation created by online network exposure to hundreds of acquaintances; far more than the human capacity for close connection.
We'll also need novels, advice columns, tutorials -- as much or more than tool features -- to handle the social and ethical dilemmas of life in the virtual city.
There are novels and memoir genre writing about dilemmas of real and phony intimacy online. Pamela Ribon's novel, Why Girls are Weird was about the varieties of truth and deception, false intimacy and real intimacy that come with keeping an online journal. Justin Hall has a breakdown online, over the fear that online exhibitionism might be incompatible with real connection.
To address Chris' dilemma directly, I think part of the problem is being a post-freudian modern; intimacy is the ultimate goal of relationship and a source of secular transcendence. We need to go back to a more 18th century concept of public identity to describe the pleasures and rewards of broad acquaintance.
Another part of the answer is a recalibrated bullshit detector for online social interaction -- learning to detect and navigate the nuances of sincerity and phoniness: annoying people on the make who "friend" everybody they meet; the cheerful grass-roots self-promotion of folks who give out business cards with their blog address; and the ongoing, global parties hosted by maestros like Jon Lebkowsky and Joi Ito.
A third part of the answer is a recalibrated set of social signals for strength of connection, where (for example) an online social network "friend" request is a light signal, a blog comment is a slightly stronger signal; individual conversation by IM/IRC is stronger than that, followed by email; meeting in 3d is a strong signal of potential friendship and periodic online followup is its confirmation; and repeated, unreciprocated comments, pings, or emails are signs of stalking.
It's a good, rich set of questions. Thanks, Chris!
The Less Networks wireless hotspot at the Capitol Grill is fabulous in concept, but the implementation is close to pointless.
"I'm sorry, you can't use that power outlet. It's a safety hazard." David Rice, the General Manager of the statehouse cafeteria came over to warn me as I checked office email, since the power cord of my laptop snaked along the wall toward a hallway plug.
Me: "Are there any other power outlets to use. "
Rice: "No. It's a safety hazard. People might trip over the cords."
Me: "Would it be possible to add more power outlets?"
Rice: "No. The State Preservation Board doesn't allow adding more power outlets."
Rice: "Oh, and by the way, I turn wireless access off between 11 and 3, when the cafeteria is busy."
So: the Capitol Grill advertises itself as a "wireless hotspot", but doesn't have any electric power, and isn't available during the hours that most people want to use the cafeteria.
I was ecstatic when I heard that cafe and the conference rooms were going to have wireless access. I do volunteer lobbying with the ACLU-TX amid my day job responsibilities. It would be extremely valuable to be able to communicate with the office if I go to the capitol during the day. Wireless at the capitol is a great step toward making politics accessible to citizens.
Fellow civic bloggers, if you'd like to request real wireless access at the Capitol cafeteria, express your opinion to:
No email address on the business card.
If you'd like to tell the State Preservation board that their no-wall-outlet policy is keeping Texas communication in the 19th centry, contact:
State Preservation Board
Caretakers of the Texas Capitol
201 E. 14th St. Austin, TX