Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Campaign of the Future

--Looking Back on 2008 in Shame--

First, with all the flack that's going around about the Democratic Primary slugfest, here's what I'd like to see. I'd like to see all the super-delegates get together and say, in one resounding voice, the following:

1) "We love this primary fight. We hope it goes all the way to the convention. We want every opinion voiced and every voter heard. We will not supress democracy for the sake of appearing to have a clear winner, or triumphant champion. Politics is a fierce business, and sometimes it is less-than-pretty, but to have such a strong field competing against each other is a sign of the strength of our party."

2) "BUT.... If you two can't play nice, talk about real issues, and show some respect for each other and your party, we're going to immediately grant all of our super-votes to the candidate who *doesn't* stoop to name calling. So help me God, I'll turn this convention around and take you all back home if you don't behave."

Not that this will ever happen. The Democrats, at heart, like appearances and dislike competition. Especially friendly competition. Every opponent is simply evil and closed-minded. Even other Democrats.

I hope that in some future campaign, we may hear ideas like the above expressed. But our nation is clearly not quite ready for it.

--Politics in the Information Age--

The Internet brought us a way to fulfill our traditionally out-of-the-way desires, both in our personal lives, and in our economy. This same transition is going to hit government sooner or later. Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch write, in their cover story for Politics:

...politics is a lagging indicator of American
society, which has been moving with
broadband-like speed into an era of Do It
Yourself culture and not-so-rugged individualism.
Think of what Americans have come to expect
and insist upon in their social and economic lives:
increasingly individualized service, culture and
consumer products at every level (“You want
soy with that decaf mocha frappuccino?”);more
and more control over education, healthcare and
retirement; and a nearly full-throttled embrace
of lifestyle tolerance and pluralism that was
unimaginable in a pre-Netflix, pre-“Queer Eye
for the Straight Guy,” pre-iPod America.
Decentralization, niche markets and choice are
the coin of this new realm. The political future
belongs to those leaders—and parties—that
figure out how to transpose this insight into
the legislative world.


Catch the whole article here:
http://www.reason.com/news/show/125656.html

They go on to talk about the increased demand from niche markets in our everyday lives, and how the top-down imposition of common goods, services, and ideas is nearing the end of its reign. I can't help but agree with them. The changes the Internet has wrought in our economy and our personal lives is about to come crashing over Washington D.C.

When someone talks about the sweeping changes that the Internet is going to bring to politics, they are usually talking about recent or near-term trends like Online voting, scandal scoops from the Blogosphere, or tapping into internet-based campaign contributions. These symptoms are certainly novel, but they are just that... symptoms. The real sea change is occurring in the populace now. We expect to have a voice, not just in the "strongly agree/somewhat disagree" opinion polls, but in shaping and driving opinion and dialogue, and in oversight of a truly transparent government.

--The Mass-Media Politics of Yesterday--

We are becoming, again (thankfully), a nation of do-it-yourself individualists. Look how politics changed with the ascent of mass-media, particularly television, in the 1950's. When political discussion became a one-way-street via broadcast media, we became a one-way-nation. When that media became nationally broadcast, we became far more federalist. (One media, one nation). When advertisers learned to ride that media, we became "consumers"--literally, bottom-feeders who ate whatever ideas or products were shoveled in front of us. (In WWII, American's were called upon to sacrifice at home for the war effort. In 2001, we were called upon to go about our business of consuming as usual, for the war effort).

We relied upon the editorial content that Television, Radio, and Political Parties provided to us. We were awash in too much information, and we needed someone to filter out the relevant data lest we be overwhelmed. In recent years, however, we have adapted. We have learned technological tricks to helping each other filter out the noise.(Things like Google, del.icio.us, digg, and community reviews and rating-systems like EBay, Angie's List, and Slashdot). And while we are beginning to reassert ourselves and demand that the feedback loop gets closed, media, newscasters, pundits, and party leaders are still riding the last wavefront. They have polished their advertising-age editorializing to such a high sheen that they can no longer tell the difference between filtering the information, and trying to control it for their own ends (nominally, for "our own good".)

Major Political party leaders, backed by the willing accomplice of mass-media and slick advertising, have grown so accustomed to setting the agenda through their position in power over information and opinion, that they cannot see the ground opening up beneath their feet.

We now have the means to make all information available in a way where it can be searched, filtered, rated, propagated, refuted, and proven, not by some small top-down leadership, but by each other.

--The Glass Closet--

Anyone with any sense stays well away from politics, only further removing those who do practice this arcane art more segregated from normal American Society. This has been a long-running theme of politics: those qualified to hold office will never seek it.

This is certainly an over-simplification, and the truth is more subtle. One thing that is certain is this: Politics is a self-selecting field. Those who seek political power seek political power because they want some form of control over other people. This feeling is often benevolent, and many seeking office do so out of some sort of perceived need to help others, but all to often, "helping" one segment of society means "controlling" another. Many good people shy away from politics for this reason. And power centralizes there, from both major parties, because they are made up of these power-seeking people, regardless of how well-intentioned their motives are.

However, many worthy people stay away from politics because they are afraid of any skeletons making their way out of the proverbial closet. But now imagine this: in 20 years how impossible will this be? Who isn't going to have some embarrassing blog post on LiveJournal, or some compromising photo up on MySpace? Nobody will be able to have lived such a pristine flawless life just to make it into politics. And if they do, none of us will put up with having people so garishly out-of-touch with the human experience as our leaders.

Furthermore, the people who are blogging, digging, linking, and cross-posting today who do make it into office will find that our expectations of their openness (and our forgiveness of their youthful indiscretions) is without bound.

I could go into this theme further, but Jeff Jarvis already beat me to it in his article, The United States of Google.

http://www.buzzmachine.com/2008/03/22/the-united-states-of-google/

In it, he proposes, among other things, to "Turn the Freedom of Information Act on it's head", and make the government ask to keep things from us. He wants the entire government to be searchable. Jarvis goes on to quote Barrack Obama:

I’ll put government data online in universally accessible
formats. I’ll let citizens track federal grants, contracts,
earmarks, and lobbyist contacts. I’ll let you participate
in government forums, ask questions in real time, offer
suggestions that will be reviewed before decisions are
made, and let you comment on legislation before it is
signed. And to ensure that every government agency
is meeting 21st century standards, I’ll appoint the
nation’s first Chief Technology Officer.

I won't quote you any more of the article. You should promptly go read it in its entirety.



We have a bright political future to look forward to. In it:

• Government is transparent
• Voters are treated like investors instead of consumers
• Citizens have a voice that refuses to go unheard
• Citizens are positive and constructive towards our government, because we have a stake in it every day, not just in election years, or as members of a broad demographic in a poll
• Ideas about good governance comes from the Citizens and bubbles upward, not from the politicians from the top-down
• Electoral success depends on motivating people, not donors, because people can't be swayed by an increasingly irrelevant broadcast media

I can't wait to see you all there.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reconciling Net Neutrality with the Free Market

Politically, I like to think that I'm nothing if not "philosophically consistent". (This, by the way, is probably why I have a hang-up when it comes to both major parties).

But I've been wrestling with myself over Net Neutrality. I'm sure you've heard next to nothing on this issue from our presidential hopefuls, so here's a brief recap.

The Internet protocol was originally specified that all traffic was to be forwarded on a "best-effort per packet basis." This means that, on the Internet, a packet of data is a packet of data, and all intermediate hosts (the stops along the way between the data's sender and it's receiver) were to attempt to deliver it without any prejudice to it's content. For a very long time, this was a non-issue. It simply meant that you could not pick which sources or destinations got preference from you. In the 25 years since the writing of this protocol, something happened that nobody had forseen. Computers and routers became so fast that they could perform "stateful packet filtering" or "packet-shaping". This means that the routers were fast enough to crack open your packets and look at the type of information they were carrying. If your traffic type was deemed "less important" by the router, it could queue it up and send "more important" data first. This is a terribly handy tool for businesses concerned with their own data (it's positively essential for Voice-over-IP phones), and so is generally regarded as A Good Thing.

However, the big Internet Service Providers decided that they wanted to start doing it to their customers. They claim that it can boost the efficiency of their systems, and allow more favored traffic the right-of-way on their networks, even if that traffic didn't originate, or wasn't destined for, one of their customers. (It's just along for the ride on their infrastructure - the primary method of all Internet traffic). Detractors (myself among them) say that this amounts to censorship, and Comcast proved us correct when independent tests showed that they were blocking or delaying trasmission of BitTorrent packets, the chief method of Point-to-Point filesharing between end users. We defenders of Net Neutrailty further postulate that allowing ISPs and common carriers to packet-shape traffic will render the Internet into a more broadcast like medium, with "desirable" traffic from major media sources getting prime treatment, while "undesirable" traffic, from the likes of individuals, would get held up or lost. This in turn would turn us back into proper consumers of corporate-approved traffic, with individual voices squelched in favor of established media outlets, many of which are owned or affiliated with providers.

I'm looking at you, AOL Time Warner. *points menacingly*

Okay, so it's clear that I'm strongly in favor of Net Neutrality, Yet, at first glance, it doesn't seem to jibe with my generally Free Market libertarianism. This may not bother your average elected official, who eats philosophical inconsistencies each morning for breakfast, but it's been nagging the hell outta me. Usually, even my instincts are pretty rational, so when I came to what apeared to me to be an irrational paradox from two rational arguments (Net Neutrality is Good. Free Markets are Good. Net Neutrality is limiting to the Free Market), I decided to rethink the whole issue, and determine whether my analysis was flawed, or my conclusions.

Finally, on the way home from Easter dinner today, it came to me. Are there any circumstances under which I believe that government oversight should step in and correct markets? As it turns out, this is a pretty easy question for me to answer. Yes, there are. Governments should only interfere with markets for three reasons.

1) To prevent coercion by fraud: Corporate entities should not be able to misrepresent themselves or their products to the consumer. Advertising doesn't count as fraud to the more cynical among you. This doesn't seem to apply to Net Neutrality, though. The ISPs aren't lying about what they want to do.

2) The prevent coercion by force: At first glance, this is a pretty weak argument for Net Neutrality. I have some limited choice as to what Internet Service Provider I choose. Of course, if you run a few traceroutes to some different internet sites, check and see how often the same common carriers come up along the way. The argument gets stronger when you see how much traffic is routed through just a few carriers, any one of which could packet-shape your data into a trickle. Still, this isn't strong enough to settle my unease with my logical paradox.

3) To prevent predatory monopolistic effects: Bingo! I found what was bothering me. The ISPs aren't acting as competitive agencies fighting to provide the best services to their clients, they are acting in concert as an oligopoly to preserve a traditional market structure that is becoming obsolete, but is much preferable to them. Centralized broadcast media is challenged directly by independent and instantaneous access to publication through the Internet by individuals. They'd all be much happier if they could turn your web browser into a TV set, and feed you the content and advertising that they find most advantageous, and could leverage with their other business interests. If you think this sounds cynical, look at an AOL (Time Warner) subscriber's default homepage. Or Road Runner (Also Time Warner). Comcast. Name a major provider, and look at the internet experience they provide out of the box. It's built to hammer you with their ads and services every time you start up your browser. Hell, this isn't new. The music and movie industries have been collectively fighting a paradigm shift in their market with almost the exact same techniques. People want quick cheap and easy access to only the music they like, delivered right to their desktop. The technology can provide it, but the publishers wanted to protect their profits and maintain a grip on the editorial content of thier industry. The pick the music the radio plays, and they put Digital Rights Managment into their proprietary audio formats, so they can meet this demand halfway, or lose thier shirts to pirated MP3s.

Monopolies (and oligopolies) are an anathema to the Free Market, even though some technologies naturally drift towards them due to factors I won't go into here. But when those oligopolies combine to effectively force you into abiding by their provisions because they control the common carrier infrastructure, you can no longer avoid them with market choices. They own the infrastructure, they can feed you what's good for them, not what you choose. That is coercion by force, and it's a coercion agreed upon by corporate entities in their own collective best interest. That is when governments have to step in to protect against monopolistic practices.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Forays into Second Life

As the resident gaming geek at the office, I've been asked to look into Second Life and other Virtual Worlds, and help evaluate their potential for our use. They sent me to a conference on Libraries, Education, and Museums in Second Life yesterday.

I use a tool called BlogHUD to document my journeys inside Second Life. Check it out here:

http://my.bloghud.com/arrykrees/

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Tinker's Toolbox: Part II

As promised, here are some essential applications and software I lean on, not just to get work done, but to make my Linux machine really feel like "home".

-----iGoogle-----
http://www.igoogle.com

iGoogle has become an absolute essential for me. When you're on as many different machines as I am in a given day, it's nice to have everything follow you around. I am a heavy user of Goggle Documents for all my spreadsheets and word processor files. I'm addicted to Google Reader for my RSS feeds.

A brief aside on RSS: RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication. When done right, it is a godsend for information junkies. In short, your RSS reader grabs simple XML code for the pages you have subscribed to, and the posts to these syndication feeds are piped directly to your computer. Imagine a tickertape for your most commonly viewed websites. My RSS feed is like a perpetually updated custom newspaper for me. It should be noted that RSS feeds are only as good as their authors, and many sites seem to misunderstand the purpose, or have co-opted it, and give you little more than a headline. Stick with the feeds that send the full articles down.

Of course, Gmail is on the main page, as well as Chat. I'm holding my breath for the release of gDrive, a shared network drive that you can reach from any computer. In the meantime, I make extensive use of Notepad (as well as it's companion FireFox extension) to make quick notes on ideas for future blog articles. My various activities are plotted via google's calendar.

-----VLC-----
http://www.videolan.org/vlc/

This is a must-have. It's the universal media player for Linux, and it covers just about every codec and format you can think of for video and audio. Grab this, and forget about having to look for the right app for a particular format. Of course, it won't save you from DRM hell, if you're moving over from iTunes on a PC or Mac, but we can address that in a different way. (DRM, or Digital Rights Management, is any number of custom formats that folks like iTunes and Microsoft force you to use. It limits your ability to move or play your music to cut down on illegal sharing). Search Synaptic for VLC.

-----Amarok-----
http://amarok.kde.org/

This is your new iTunes replacement. You'll find the features very familiar, and some additions to a standard iTunes interface that should please everybody. Let it search your hard drive or network for all your audio files, and watch it catalog them. It works flawlessly with an iPod, but it may screw up your current list when it syncs, so make sure you convert all your music over to mp3's and get it into Amarok before trying to sync. So long as your musical house is in order on your PC, the iPod will do just fine. (I've also had good reports from Zuners too.)

Sadly, it can't play your blessed DRM files that you purchased off iTunes, but that's what we get for playing with proprietary closed systems, isn't it? The only way to grab your music as MP3s, if you purchased it from iTunes, it to rip it out to CDs and re-import it into MP3s. (I'm hunting for a better method, I'll let you know when I find it). The first time you play it, it will grab the codecs for whatever non-DRM format your music is in. But moving forward...

-----AmazonMP3-----
http://www.amazonmp3.com

If you have followed my lead, and installed Gutsy Gibbon (Ubuntu 7.10), just follow the links on the main page. It will install your MP3 downloader in about 10 seconds, and give you a free song to test it with (you'll want to put in your credit card info here for future purchases, but this one will be free). No more DRM!! Amazon's MP3 catalog is extensive (easily matching the selection of iTunes), and better than that - it has a massive collection of Classical music, something iTunes is horrible at. Most songs are 89 cents per song, so it's even cheaper than iTunes. So, why are you using iTunes again?

-----Dia-----
http://www.gnome.org/projects/dia/

This one really belongs in my previous post, as I use it almost exclusively for work, but this is your (superior) replacement for Microsoft Visio. It's excellent at cranking out network diagrams, and they can be cranked out as PDFs when you're done. Like most Open Source analogues to the M$ world, it's smaller, faster, simpler, and more robust than it's proprietary counterpart. Per usual, grab this package via Symantec.

If you've been following these last two posts, your Linux box should be feeling an awful lot like your old Microsoft home.