Free Markets, Free People

Billy Hollis


DHS monitoring the internet … er, so?

There’s a tempest in a tea pot brewing right now that I’m not sure I understand.

The story from Reuters:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s command center routinely monitors dozens of popular websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Hulu, WikiLeaks and news and gossip sites including the Huffington Post and Drudge Report, according to a government document.

A "privacy compliance review" issued by DHS last November says that since at least June 2010, its national operations center has been operating a "Social Networking/Media Capability" which involves regular monitoring of "publicly available online forums, blogs, public websites and message boards."

The purpose of the monitoring, says the government document, is to "collect information used in providing situational awareness and establishing a common operating picture."

The document adds, using more plain language, that such monitoring is designed to help DHS and its numerous agencies, which include the U.S. Secret Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency, to manage government responses to such events as the 2010 earthquake and aftermath in Haiti and security and border control related to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Let’s see … a department that has the job of “homeland security” monitoring open source internet venues to collect information in order to maintain situational awareness.

Wow.  For some reason I’m underwhelmed.  My goodness, haven’t we seen shots of various command centers over the years with split video screens showing Fox, CNN and MSNBC?   They’re good sources of immediate information that help those engaged in all sorts of rather benign activity (disaster relief?) keep abreast of breaking news. 

Why all the hyperventilating over something that is and has been fairly routine for all sorts of agencies over the years?  

Look, everyone here knows I’m not a fan of big intrusive government, but what would you do here, ban the department from gathering information and intelligence from sites that are open to everyone else?   Should we also ban them from “monitoring” the NY Times and Washington Post.

Oh, and by the way, this isn’t news.  As the Reuters story claims, this has been going on since June of 2010.  And guess who broke the story then?  The Volokh Conspiracy.  As Stewart Baker points out:

The story is that people at DHS are, gasp, browsing the Internet. As I said then, there’s no scandal, other than the electrons wasted by DHS agonizing over the privacy implications of browsing public Internet sources to find out what’s happening in the world.

And if it was a nonstory in February of 2010, what does that make it in January of 2012?

Actually, it’s a lesson — that both the mainstream media and the blogosphere are doggedly overreporting anything that could be deemed a privacy violation by government, especially DHS.  If you only followed these things casually, you’d be sure that DHS was constantly violating Americans’ rights, and reports like this would be a key bit of evidence.  But when you give the “story” a little scrutiny, all you find is an agency that needs to know what’s happening in an emergency and that is looking at public social media sites for information, just like the rest of us.  There’s no privacy issue there at all, despite the heavy breathing and the headlines.

Or perhaps before crying wolf, one ought to take a breath and get into the details of the story.  There are plenty of things to concern one’s self with other than this non-story.

For instance:

U.S. officials told the New York Times that they’re “looking closely” at Shabab’s use of Twitter and their options for legal and other responses. Separately, Sen. Joe Lieberman (@JoeLieberman), Chair of the Homeland Security Committee, called on Twitter to shut down the Taliban’s accounts.

Other Western governments have also turned against Twitter. British Prime Minister David Cameron (@Number10gov), for example, raised the prospect of banning Twitter during social disturbances, following its use by rioters in the U.K., and Mexican prosecutors have accused Twitter users of terrorism for spreading false rumors that have led to real-life violence.

An Israeli legal advocacy group, Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, has separately threatened Twitter with legal action for hosting the Shabab and Hezbollah accounts. Who will win in court is unclear: It’s a First Amendment versus providing services for terrorists toss-up.

And:

US Representatives Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced a bill into the House of Representatives in mid-December that would roll back the National Institutes of Health Public Access Policy, which mandates that any published research that was funded by the federal science agency be submitted to the publically accessible digital archive PubMed Central upon acceptance for publication in journals. The bill, H.R. 3699, would also make it illegal for other federal agencies to adopt similar open-access policies.

The legislation, referred to as the Research Works Act, is being applauded by the Association of American Publishers, a book publishing industry trade organization that claims the NIH policy and others like it undercut the scientific publishing business, which seldom receives federal funds. “At a time when job retention, US exports, scholarly excellence, scientific integrity, and digital copyright protection are all priorities, the Research Works Act ensures the sustainability of this industry,said Tom Allen, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers in a statement.

Want to get your britches in a bunch, there are two stories that should help wad them up.  Censoring Twitter (and that’s precisely where all of that is headed) and making opaque research which you, the taxpayer has funded to help a crony profit?  Now both of those are worthy of condemnation and outrage.

~McQ

Twitter: @McQandO


Realistic 2012 horoscopes

I happened to run across this page on Yahoo today, containing horoscopes for 2012. I thought they were a bit optimistic, though. Considering all the other analysis I’ve seen about what 2012 is expected to bring, I think we need more realistic horoscopes. I’m thinking something along the following lines:

Aries:

This is a good year to be true to your astrological sign and become a sheep herder. When it becomes difficult to buy food because of worldwide financial calamity, you’ll have sheep’s milk for cheese, and you can also shear the sheep to knit new clothing when your current clothes wear out. As a final measure, rack of lamb is delicious. Don’t forget to buy shears and knitting needles.

Taurus:

Of course, those under this sign tend to be bull-headed, and will probably be some of the last ones to admit that their savings and other investments have been wiped out. So harness that stubbornness, and doggedly insist that all your assets be converted to gold, and bury it in your back yard.

Gemini:

The sign of the twin is a good tip to stock up on duplicates of anything you really need for survival, since it might be hard to buy them after the meltdown hits. So buy another Glock, another shotgun, and another AR. Don’t forget extra ammo for all of them!

Cancer:

Your sign indicates that you should move somewhere that you will be able to catch shellfish for food. Watch for condo deals on the shoreline in New England and especially Alaska. You might want to consider taking a job on a crab boat to build up some expertise.

Leo:

Thank goodness you are endowed with bravery, since you’re going to need it this year. Use it to plan your defensive perimeter. Sight in likely entry points, and be ready to distribute the ammo you’ll need when the marauding invaders come for your food after they’ve finished looting the grocery stores.

Virgo:

Be true to your sign. This is not a good year to get pregnant and have small children to feed. If you do, you can forget about toys next Christmas; they’ll be lucky to get a full meal. Plus, the collapse of the school system means that if you do have children, you better stock up on home schooling supplies.

Libra:

Use this year to bring some balance to your life. Add martial arts to your shooting practice, for example. And you’ll balance better by losing some weight and getting in shape. That will make your home defense much easier during the food riots.

Scorpio:

Your natural tendency to be short tempered must be controlled this year especially. When a suspicious character comes to the door seeking food, don’t be too quick on the trigger. Instead, put out a sign explaining that you don’t have any food to give away, and pretend not to hear the door. Only shoot if they ignore those measures and try to break in.

Capricorn:

As with the advice for Aries, you should investigate keeping some goats. In addition to the advantages of sheep, goats also are cantankerous enough to assist in property defense. Their milk makes better cheese, but they’re not such good eating. So lay in some extra canned goods to go with your goat’s milk cheese. Watch out for Occupy Wall Street types, who will probably start rioting as soon as the grocery store runs out of goat’s milk cheese for their arugula and baby beet salad.

Aquarius:

This might be your year to express your affinity for water and buy a house boat. It would be a great haven to ride out the riots and other civil unrest, as long as you could find enough fuel to scamper off to a safe spot. Scout out some likely spots ahead of time to lay in some emergency freeze-dried food, and don’t forget your rain collector for potable water.

Pisces:

Your path to surviving 2012 will likely mean lots of fishing. Tune up your equipment, lay in some lures, and don’t forget spare knives for scaling and fileting your catch. A portable mercury tester wouldn’t be a bad idea either.


"…we’re about to face a situation that will destroy our cultural and economic underpinnings…”

For those of you who have not taken the opportunity to listen to this week’s podcast, the above was part of the summation of our situation by Dale Franks. I’d recommend you listen to the whole thing.

No one knows in detail what will happen in the next few years. The number of variables is too high. But the general outline is clear. In the near term, the US and about half a dozen European countries have unsustainable debt curves. That unsustainable debt is going to cause financial catastrophe not in a decade or two, but sometime in the next few years.

Given the interconnected nature of the world’s trade and financial system, that catastrophe is likely to spread rapidly. Even countries whose sins have been modest, such as Germany, will be caught up. Countries who depend on the US and Europe for the money to drive their economies, such as China and India, will be caught up. It’s going to be very, very messy, and a lot of people are going to suffer.

The participants in the podcast all agreed that there isn’t any obvious politically feasible way to reverse course. I agree, and I have a few comments to add.

I see the following as the biggest three groups involved in the political decision making, from largest to smallest, with some overlap among them:

(1.) The "rationally ignorant"* – those who don’t pay that much attention to politics, and have at best a vague understanding that we have a problem. These people, to the extent they think about it at all, believe that shuffling some things around a bit, electing some different people, and passing a few laws will fix whatever is ailing us.

They believe in such a “solution” because that’s the way things have gone their whole lives. Somehow the ruling class has always managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and keep things humming. They won’t believe this process will fail until it does. 

There are even quite a few Republicans in this category. They can generally be identified by their fixation on finding "the next Reagan".**

(2.) The ones who have some glimmering that there’s a problem, perhaps because they are unemployed, mired in debt, or both, but have a convenient scapegoat in mind. That’s usually "the rich" and "the evil corporations", though for Republicans, it might be Obama, Barney Frank, George Soros, or whoever. Like group 1, they believe it’s easy to fix the problems – just come down on the scapegoat, and everything will work out.

(3.) The "ruling class" as defined by Codevilla. This group is mostly convinced of their own magnificence, and thus believe if the right people are in charge (which usually includes them personally), then they can solve any problems. The ones in this group with enough situational awareness to realize the magnitude of the problem also realize that it’s pointless to do anything significant to try and solve it because that would get them cashiered from the ruling class. So their efforts are in mitigation, obfuscations, and generally stretching things out until they are retired from the game.  

Given this breakdown, we can talk all we want about who the GOP is going to nominate for president, but it really doesn’t matter. We have too big a cohort of people in this country who either believe we don’t really have a serious problem, or think there is a serious problem, but believe the cause is a boogieman of some kind that must be vanquished.

There’s a good reason they believe that. They are kept in the dark by a mainstream legacy press desperate to cover up the failings of the left-leaning governing style preferred by the vast majority of journalists.

In fact, none of the ruling class – which includes the politicians, journalists, academicians, lobbyists, staffers, and the like – has any motivation to tell the harsh truth about the trouble we are in. As I said above, they have a strong disincentive to do so. If they did, the other members of the ruling class would turn on them. They would likely lose their livelihood.

We’re also fighting ingrained culture. We have two generations that have been raised to believe that, ultimately, someone else is responsible for the essentials of their lives. They believe they are supposed to retire in their fifties or early sixties, with a pension followed by Social Security. They believe they are supposed to relinquish concern for healthcare costs when they turn 65. They believe that if things get bad enough in their lives, unemployment, and later welfare, will keep a roof over their head and food on the table. They’ve been trained to believe this by a ruling class that has been assuring them since the 1930s that they have the fundamental right to a soft life.

These people do not want to think about a world where these things are not true. It would be exquisitely painful to worry about those things. So they don’t. They ignore the warnings of the "radicals" who trot out the debt curves and the demographic stats. It’s easy enough to do that – the supposedly smart reporters ignore them too, if they don’t come right out and ridicule them. The abysmally ignorant social scientist cohort produces yet another round of "analysis" purporting to prove everything is OK, or at least would be if those rich people would just give up some more money. The political class assures them that it will be all right if they just keep electing the right people.

This state of affairs has no exit except catastrophe so major and undeniable that it affects most people personally. By then, it is virtually certain that the world financial system is past the point of no return in its current form.

I’ve stopped trying to talk to people around me about what is happening and likely to happen. I would have to spend hours removing the false assumptions they hold before I could even start. Plus, as I mentioned, they don’t want to believe what I need to tell them. It’s just too painful.

We are about to see a crisis that will set back living standards in this country to a level many alive today have never seen. The only reason it probably won’t get down to subsistence level is the technology base that we have. But we’re probably going to see stagnation, crumbling infrastructure, high unemployment, inability for most people to build any significant assets, and possible civil violence if the problem becomes so severe that it starts affecting the food supply (which I hope won’t happen).

I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does either, about how we will get through the chaos and what things look on the other side of it. I see three major categories of possible outcomes, and there may be more. But that’s a subject for another post.

(*)When I used the term "rational ignorance" in a comment at Daily Pundit about five years back, Bill Quick picked it up and had some unkind things to say about such people. (Daily Pundit is undergoing a platform change, so I can’t link to the page. It was on June 10, 2006, and I’ll link to it once the site over there is back to normal.) I understand Bill’s take, but unlike him and some other opinionists on the right, I don’t use it pejoratively. I use it the way economists originally intended: simply to mean people who are unwilling to invest the time and cost to become informed about the real underlying state of our political world.

It is expensive to become so informed, and the payoff for any individual is small. The aggregate effects, as we are seeing, may be horrendous. That doesn’t change the underlying economics. A political system that relies on individuals to invest the time to become informed about complex political issues, out of a higher understanding of their civic duty, is as doomed to failure as a system that expects individuals to commit to "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". In both cases, such an expectation crashes up against the behavior of real people, i.e., human nature. For me, this is one of the cornerstones of my strong belief in highly limited government – it’s the only form that allows people to not know much about the political world because that world is pretty simple. We just have not figured out how to make limited government stable in the long term in the face of rational ignorance plus plus the cohort of moochers that’s present in every society.

(**)While I grant that Reagan was better than many alternatives, including the pathetic scold he replaced, at best he gave us some breathing space to solve the underlying problems of a decaying welfare state. He didn’t really make much progress in actually solving the long term problem, and his inability to get Democrats to cut spending led to some significant contributions to our debt problems.


Moving technology from making things possible to making them easy

I’m coincidentally the same age as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. I’ve seen and worked in the industry they created – what we first called "micro-computers" and later "personal computers" or PCs.

Even that term is falling out of favor. "Laptop" is probably heard more often now, with "tablet" and "slate" moving in.

I’m wondering, though, if "slate" will actually stick. Just as "kleenex" is the word most of us use for a small tissue to wipe your nose (no matter how Kimberly-Clark feels about it), I wonder if we’ll someday be talking about "ipads" from Amazon and Samsung. That would merely be continuing the trend where "ipod" is becoming the generic term for an MP3 player.

This is one example of the power of Steve Jobs to set the agenda in the last ten years. There are plenty more.

The changing signs on Music Row in Nashville are another testament to his ability to turn an existing order upside down. The iPod changed the music industry beyond recognition, and here in Nashville we had a front-row seat to watch the changes.

The area of most interest to me, though, is in software. I’ve focused more on user interface design over the years than any other area. I’ve watched Apple drive a trend that is powerful and desirable in our industry: moving from just making something possible with technology to making it easy.

For decades, it was enough for a software program to make something possible that was not possible before. DOS-based software was never particularly easy to use. The underlying technology to make it easy just wasn’t there.

Jobs and Wozniak pioneered that era, but Bill Gates ruled it. He reduced IBM to irrelevance, along with Novell, Lotus, and WordPerfect, all major league software companies at one time.

To some extent, Bill understood the importance of making things easy; Excel was about ten times easier to use than Lotus 1 2 3. But he never really innovated much in making things easy. His forte was seeing good ideas produced by others and then copying those ideas and making products based on them affordable and practical. Windows was never the equal of the Mac until (arguably) Windows 7, but it ran on cheaper machines and Bill made it friendly to businesses, which were the biggest buyers of PCs until somewhere in the 1990s.

Steve Jobs and his crew were Bill’s best idea source. I sometimes thought that they served as the unofficial research arm of Microsoft for user interface design throughout the eighties and nineties. Apple sputtered through that period, producing hits (iMac) and misses (Newton). At one point, Bill Gates even stepped in with a capital infusion that saved Apple from likely irrelevance or even bankruptcy. I suppose he didn’t want to see his free research lab disappear.

During that era, Steve Jobs kept pushing the boundaries. The very first Mac was a pain to use, because it was too slow to do what he imagined, and had a screen that we would laugh at today. But it made some new things possible, such as real graphic editing. Though a PC was my main machine in the mid-1980s, I would put up with the Mac’s flaws to do my graphics work. The salesmen at our company often said our diagrams of the system we were proposing often clinched the sale.

I believe Jobs had a vision during that period of what personal technology could be like, but the nuts and bolts were not quite there. Nevertheless, he always insisted on "user first" thinking.

Jobs understood something that is still misunderstood by almost all companies in technology. You can’t innovate by asking your users to tell you what to do.

The typical technology company convenes focus groups and does market research, and then says "Ah, what buyers want is X, Y, and Z. OK, you lab guys, go create it for the lowest possible cost."

Steve Jobs understood that consumers and users of technology don’t know how to design technology products any more than movie goers know how to write screenplays. To create innovative and delightful user experiences, it is necessary to get inside the mind of the user and understand them so well that you know what they will like even before they do.

This is hard. It’s so hard that only two companies in my lifetime have been any good at it at all: Apple and Sony. And these companies have dramatically different batting averages, with Apple up in Ted Williams territory while Sony languishes around the Mendoza line.

Finally, about ten years ago, the underlying technology started matching up with Jobs’ vision. The result was the iPod.

There were plenty of MP3 players that pre-dated the iPod. I had one, from Creative. It had about enough storage for three albums, and required me to organize files and folders on it to store my music.

Steve Jobs saw the small, low power hard disks coming on line and realized they could be the foundation of a new, reimagined device. First, it would store hundreds of albums or thousands of songs – a typical person’s entire music collection. It would use software designed earlier to manage music – iTunes.

The big departure was the approach to user experience. The iPod was so simple to use that someone could pick it up and figure it out in about two minutes.

This was done by purposely leaving out features that were arguably useful. While the other MP3 makers were designing and marketing on checklists of features, the iPod stripped things down to the basics. And kicked the others to the curb.

Jobs realized before others that it was time to stop working on "possible" and start emphasizing "easy". When technology is new and rapidly evolving, something new is possible with each passing year, and giving buyers new features is enough to sell products. But when technology reaches a certain point, and the feature lists get long enough, all products have the essential features. The differentiation then becomes based on something very simple: what people like.

This is particularly true as technology starts appealing to a broad market. If you try to satisfy everyone in a broad market by including all the features anyone in a broad spectrum wants, you’ll end up with an unusable mess.

At some point in the evolution of technology for a given space, people just assume that the features they really need will be in all the devices they see. They start choosing based on emotion. That is, they seek what feels elegant and fluid to them, something they really want to be a part of their daily life.

This is where genuine design, based on universal design principles that go back decades or centuries, starts adding value. For example, Hick’s Law says that the time required to choose an option goes up as the number of options increases. Simply put, users get frustrated trying to find the feature they want from a long list of features in a menu, or trying to find the button they want on a remote control that has fifty-eleven buttons.

There is an entire body of knowledge in this space, and the first major computer/software company to emphasize designers who knew and understood this body was Apple. The culture at Apple values people who know how to get inside the mind of a user and then create a new way of interacting with technology that the user will love.

Jobs created and drove that culture. He went from turning the music business upside down with the iPod to turning the phone industry upside down with the iPhone, and now Apple is remaking their original territory, the personal computer, with the iPad.

I’ve discussed before in the comments here that I don’t like the iPad. It’s slow and limited for my purposes, many of the web sites I use are not compatible with it, and I don’t like iTunes.

But it’s not designed for me. That’s a key lesson that designers grow to appreciate. Each design has a target audience, which must not be too broad. The true test of a good designer is whether they can design something for someone who is not like them. 

I put my iPad in the hands of my 76 year old mother, and she immediately took to it. I showed her a few basic touch gestures, and she could immediately do the only things she uses a computer for – browsing and email. For her, it was easy, and as a veteran of the made-to-do-anything-and-everything Windows (I got her a computer for email and such six years ago), she really appreciated that.

The culture created by Jobs can do things that Microsoft, for all its money and brains, is not very good at. Microsoft people are smart. I work with many of them, so I’ve seen it firsthand. But almost all of them have a tendency that is all too common in the human race. They can only see the world through their own eyes, and are not very good at seeing it through the eyes of someone with a radically different background or different abilities.

When Microsoft teams start designing a new product or version, most of the times I’ve been involved, the process started with a list of proposed features. In other words, their process starts with what they want to make possible for the user.

Unlike Apple, the culture at Microsoft places little or no value on making things easy. This isn’t surprising, because Microsoft’s success over a span of decades has not been dependent on innovation in making things easy. It’s been in making things possible and affordable. They copied the "make things easy" part from someone else, usually Apple.

But even Microsoft has seen the direction for the industry laid out by Jobs and Apple, and realized that things have sped up. Copying isn’t good enough any more. Jobs perfected the process of laying entire segments waste with an innovative new entry, and as the iPhone showed, it can happen in a single year.

Those at Microsoft are starting down the path of worrying more about user experience. They may not like it much, but they realize it’s now a matter of necessity. 

First, they created the XBox – an entirely new product in a separate division that successfully challenged established players in a world where user experience trumps everything else. Then, shamed by the abysmal Windows Mobile products they had produced in the phone space, they created a pretty decent product there in the Windows Phone.

Their steps are halting and tentative, but at least they are toddling down that path now. I hope they learn how to walk and run on that path, but given the effort it will take to turn their culture around, that will take a while.
 
I don’t know that they would have ever gone down that route if Jobs and Apple had not pushed them down it. I’ve chafed for most of my career at the apathy and ignorance in the Microsoft community around user experience. I’ve always believed that our systems and devices exist for users, not for our own aggrandizement. As such, we owe them the best experience we can give them.

I was never a major Apple customer. Apple was never a cost-effective choice for the business and data oriented software I’ve created.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate what Steve Jobs did for our industry. I absolutely do. I wish he could have been around for another decade or two, continuing to show the world that "possible" isn’t good enough, and push the rest of the industry into respecting our users and making things easy.


Reconnecting the DC GOP to reality

I remember giddy Republicans in early 2001. At last they had won the Presidency and both houses of Congress. They were like football fans whose team had just won the SuperBowl.

What exactly did we get out of that wonderful deal, again? Oh, yeah, a higher rate of spending than under Clinton. A new entitlement we couldn’t afford. Intrusion of the federal government into education. A blatantly unconstitutional law limiting free speech during elections.

However, it was a good time for DC Republicans. There were lots of jobs and lots of opportunities to get on the talk shows.

I suppose I understand, then, why DC Republicans look at elections more like a football game. If their team wins the game, there are goodies to go around.

However, the rest of us, including many disaffected Republicans, have realized that the rah-rah, go team approach to politics is a pointless waste of time, money, and energy. This is shown in the Tea Party’s character, for example. They want to discuss issues, and they’re not dazzled by nice hair, experience in the establishment political world, or all the other characteristics that political consultants find so important when they rate candidates.

One would think that the establishment GOP would have enough self-awareness to understand that it’s time to change their view on candidates and elections. I’d like to think these people are intelligent enough to read the charts and realize that the time for playing games is past. We are very probably approaching a worldwide financial crisis that will rock the very foundations of Western society.

Unfortunately they don’t seem to notice, as I was reminded this weekend when I read this piece on The Corner quoting Mary Matalin:

…Republicans should get over their puppy love, she said, and realize that no candidate is going to be perfect. The important thing is that they can beat President Obama.

No. That’s not the important thing. That statement may sound wise and obvious to DC political types, but it’s absolutely wrong, and there are two ironclad reasons why.

First, if it gets us a Nixon or a G.W. Bush, then it actually makes things worse. Suppose we expend our limited opportunity to reverse our current headlong rush to catastrophe by electing such a person. Then suppose the catastrophe comes on their watch.

The result is that it’s probably then the last chance the GOP will ever get to fix things. The left-leaning media will pin all the blame on the Republicans, and contort every fact they find to make it look like the Democrats can fix things.

An observant, rational person might note that the notion of the Democrats fixing anything about large, intrusive, expensive, debt-ridden government is laughable. But the media will sell that ridiculous notion, and clueless moderates will buy it, just as they did in 2008. The GOP brand will then be tarnished for a generation (“See, those Tea Party types just make things worse!”), and there will be plenty more fiddling while the country burns. The Tea Party types will likely try a third party, and given the structural problems in our system, that’s highly unlikely to work fast enough to make a difference.

Second, the very idea that we can predict who can or can’t beat Obama is just silly. I remember when Reagan “couldn’t beat Carter” because he was just a B movie actor. Bill Quick is fond of saying that his Pomeranian could beat Obama, and if things continue to move in the direction they’re going now, he’s clearly on target.

Just to pick out someone, let’s look at Hermann Cain. By conventional wisdom from establishment types, he can’t possibly beat Obama.

Well, why the hell not? He won the Florida straw poll decisively, so he seems to have something in his tank to motivate the base. Given that he’s black, suppose he changes the voting in that population from 90-10 Obama to 70-30 Obama. That alone would be enough to tie him even if Obama did as well among all other groups as he did in 2008. And Obama isn’t going to do nearly as well in most groups except for those firmly on the left wing.

I’m not endorsing Cain here. I’m just pointing out that playing the “who can beat Obama” game is silly, and could even cause catastrophic long term damage to the very party these people belong to.

Contra Mary Madalin, the important thing is to find a candidate who understands the depth of the crisis we face and has the courage to go to the wall against dozens of special interest groups to fix it. Without such a person, winning the White House is pointless and possibly counter-productive in the long term.

Of course, I’m not sure the DC establishment types care much. Matalin was married to James Carville last I heard, so if there was ever a couple deeply invested in business-as-usual in DC, it’s them. They and the other DC establishment types probably expect to be safely ensconced in their nice houses, drawing a guaranteed check, so they won’t suffer as much as the rest of us when TSHTF.

But that means we need to ignore anything and everything these people have to say.* We’ve been paying attention to them for decades, and where has it gotten us? The old saw about doing the same thing over and over comes to mind.

It’s time to throw the dice and try something different. It might not work, but it has a chance, and that’s better than the certain failure of DC politics as usual.

(*) The folks at National Review are some of the main ones who need to pay attention to this. The time for standing athwart history, yelling stop, is past. Only a serious U-turn will do us any good now. And we’ll never, ever get that from establishment GOP types.


For the software devs among our readers, a report from //build/

Microsoft’s //build/ conference is on, where they are rolling out plans for a pretty dramatic shift in Windows for the next generation.

I’m in sunny Anaheim at the conference, with no time to pen a long post. If you’ve got ten minutes to waste listening to me ramble, and you care about the Microsoft side of the tech industry, you can watch this video which was posted a couple of hours ago. Actually, it might be better to watch some other videos in the series that feature Microsoft executives with a lot more interesting and detailed things to say, but, hey, if you make fun of them in the comments here, they’ll never see it. Whereas you can point out that the camera angle makes me look like I have some kind of weird arthritis, and I just have to take it.

If you don’t care about software development, or do care but are apathetic or hostile to Microsoft, my apologies. Please return to our usual program of economic and political doom.


Top five public speaking tics that are annoying as Hell

I spend a lot of time in front of an audience. It’s a major source of my income, and if I suck at it, my bank account will feel it.

Since I’m rather fond of my bank account, I try to listen to others who do public speaking, and pick up do’s and don’ts from them. It’s mostly don’ts, I’m afraid, especially from politicians. Our generation has very few good public speakers, and no genuine orators of consequence as far as I know. 

The worst things I see are tics that speakers fall into. They annoy the heck out of me, and probably you too. I try to observe and remember those annoyances, so that I can avoid them in my own delivery.

Here, then are the top five things I notice in public speakers that grate on my nerves. Any of you that need to get in front of a group should try hard to avoid having a single one of these tics even one time in your presentation.

 

1. "…you know…" This is the one I see the most right now. Politicians seem to particularly susceptible to this one, including Obama. Here are a couple of examples from Senator Mark Warner in an interview published just a couple of days ago.

You know, there’s ideas, for example, that I’ve found a tremendous response on that says, you know, we’ve got thousands of schools in our country that are energy inefficient. Why not take folks, particularly young people, 18 to 30 year olds, who’ve been on unemployment for more than 10 or 15 weeks and say, you know, we’re going to continue…

Well, you know, the – I wish I’d say that, you know, I’m extraordinarily optimistic, but, you know, the alternative becomes, you know, if we’re going to look at gridlock, candidly, the whole Congress ought to get fired, because the American people ought to expect us to do our job.

…there are a whole series of things that we could do that, frankly, you know, we do need folks – particularly in the House – to simply stop saying “no” and kind of roll up their sleeves and, you know, try to work together in a bipartisan way.

I doubt Warner even knows he does this, but I find it incredibly annoying when someone speaks like this. You probably do too, so make sure, you know, you’re not doing it.

2. "…like…" Another well known tic is the gratuitous use of "like". Example: "This problem is like really hard to solve. You should like give us some extra time to like figure it out."

Conversational tics go in cycles, and this one is (hopefully) on the decline. At its height five or so years ago, I used to sit in audiences and calculate the "like index", which was the number of times the speaker gratuitously stuck in "like" per minute.

Younger female speakers were and are by far the worst offenders, and for some reason this tic seems to be worse in California. I heard a young lady speak in front of a group a couple of years ago with a "like index" of about fifteen.

Because this one has been around a while, people notice it, and therefore it’s especially important to avoid it. It also has a connotation of youthful cluelessness, which is another very good reason to, like, keep your presentations "like"-free.

3. "…, right?" This one’s fairly recent. I first noticed it about two years ago. Presenters began the tic of inserting the question-tone "right" at the end of about every other sentence. Even some quite good presenters I know picked this up, and I suspect it’s because it became a conversation tic inside Microsoft – the culture there has a tendency towards such tics.

A presentation with the "right?" tic sounds something like this:

"The turboencabulator uses a CPU to encarphalize the singlial signal, right? And that minimizes energy drain by the gristocentrum, right? Compare that to an agilomodelizer. It connects garphal entities to anthrocentic viewlicanters, right?"

Unlike "like" or "you know", I think perhaps one or two "right?" insertions per hour for emphasis might not be too bad. But as a tic inserted in every paragraph, not only is it irritating, after a while the audience begins to wonder if you’re not trying to convince yourself. Right?

4. "…frankly, …" and its relatives. This one has been a favored tic from politicians for years. They like to insert "frankly" every so often in whatever they are trying to get across. You can get as many examples as you like with simple searches. Here’s one for “senator frankly”.

I think they are striving for the implication that they’re being honest with us, which of course for a politician is always an open question. I find it insulting, though. Are they not being honest if they don’t keep inserting "frankly" in every other sentence?

There are variations on "frankly", and some are far worse. Sometimes politicians realize they have used "frankly" too much, and switch to "candidly", which is just as bad. An even worse variant is "To be honest with you…". A really bad variation is the insertion of "trust me", which almost any audience member will interpret as "don’t trust me".

If you believe in what you’re saying, it should come through in your tone and body language. You don’t need to keep reassuring your audience that you’re telling the truth. Unless you’re lying, of course.

5. Overuse or misuse of "literally". I’ve been guilty of this in my writing on occasion, probably because I’m trying to emphasize that I’m really not kidding about something that sounds outrageous. However, I recommend that you never use it in public speaking.

First, it has some of the same problem as "frankly", in that your tone and demeanor should make it unnecessary. Second, there is a bad tendency in present day communication for it to be used naively. Some people apparently don’t understand what the word really means, and they just use it for general emphasis. If you use it, you risk being dumped into the bucket with those folks.

There are others: "a going-forward basis", "incentivize" and other verbicized nouns, switching out perfectly clear terms such as "spending" to something that isn’t really accurate but has a better connotation ("investment"), and other forms of drone-speak. However, it’s the tics that really bother me. I can’t really seen any excuse for them whatsoever in someone who speaks as part of their profession.

If you have to get in front of a group more than once or twice a month, these tics will bother your audiences too. So do your best to banish them from anything you say in front of a crowd or on camera.


Scene from a modern American newsroom

{Reporters and editors staff meeting, Metropolis Times-Post-Globe-Tribune, Monday, August 8, 2011}

“OK, people, this looks like a big week. There’s a lot coming down this week, so we all need to do some serious, in-depth work to stay ahead of the curve. First, we’ve got the downgrade and the associated fallout. I need someone who can look at the aftereffects, and make a guess about what it means.”

“Chief, I’ve been doing some analysis on this, and…”

“Stop right there, Beth. This is another one of those ‘Obama made a mistake’ pieces you want to do, isn’t it? When I hired you last spring, I thought I made it clear that we take a balanced approach here. We need to look for fault on all sides, and respect the office of the presidency. Walt, how about you?”

“Chief, do we have to use the word fallout? On this weekend’s talk shows, everyone was using the term ‘Tea Party downgrade’. I think that’s the right analysis. Why, with that approach, the piece practically writes itself.”

“Perfect. Since that’s the new factor in DC, it’s clear that the Tea Party is the biggest factor in this. Get to work. Beth, what is it?”

“Uh, sir, how does a faction that only controls 1/3 of the majority party in one house of Congress cause this problem in only seven months? Don’t we need to go back further in time for a better analysis?”

“No, this is a newspaper, not some right-wing think tank.”

“But, sir, the articles I read about the Tea Party that we put out last year claimed they were just a bunch of whackjobs who would never have any significant effect on Washington because of their extremism. Don’t we at least need to examine how that changed over the last year?”

“No. Our readers understand how the Tea Party has morphed into a national threat. So the Tea Party downgrade is one direction we’ll go. But we need something with some math in it to explain the whole thirty year future thing. I know we don’t normally do math stuff, but with the stock market dropping like a rock, people need some reassurance on this so they don’t panic. Did anybody in here take calculus? Destiny, I seem to recall that it’s on your transcript.”

“Well, um, yeah, but I don’t remember much of it.”

“Your transcript says you made an A. And it was only two years ago. What gives?”

“Well, see, the teacher and me, we had a sort of arrangement. He was real cute, and I really needed to pass calculus, so…. I really didn’t expect the A, but we hit it off better than I thought we would.”

“OK, anybody else want to tackle that? Not you, Beth.”

“Chief, I know a guy over at MoveOn who is good with charts. I can probably get something good from him.”

“OK, Hunter, that will do. Of course, you’ll want to attribute the original source instead of MoveOn. You understand.”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Moving on, this whole gun running thing just won’t go away. Personally, I don’t see why our readers would be interested in it, but we’ve been taking some flack on the right-wing extremist talk shows at Fox. So we need to do some real investigation here, and find out the real story. It’s pretty clear that those extremists at Fox are trying to gin up a controversy that makes the Obama administration look bad, so we need to counter that with some objective analysis. Who’s up for it? Jeremy, you wrote a couple of articles on it early on. You want to go deep on it?”

“Not really, sir. I can’t get anybody in the Justice Department to talk about it, so I can’t get any balance. They’re scared by the way the whole Scooter Libby thing turned out.”

“Yeah, yet again, the Republicans ruined it for everybody. Can’t you get anyone to talk?”

“The only people I can get are field people, who seem to have an agenda here to push this as a controversy. I think they’ve been influenced by the Fox people. I don’t want to give them a soapbox. All they want to talk about is some dead agent from last year and memos from Obama’s people.”

“Sir?”

“Yes, Beth, what is it?”

“Sir, I think we have to take into consideration that there’s a real conspiracy here, something that would take us to very high levels. This could even be Pulitzer material.”

“Beth, I think you’re absolutely right. Why, given the phone hacking scandals in Britain, who knows what these Fox people are capable of. This might go all the way to Rupert Murdoch.”

“That wasn’t exactly…”

“OK, Jeremy, there’s your angle. Go back to your sources and see if any of them are interested in talking about the Fox conspiracy side of things.

“What do you want me to do about the rumors that the FBI and DEA were involved?”

“They’re just rumors.”

“Yeah, but they have some emails that look a bit incriminating.”

“Probably faked. You know how those right wingers are. First they’ll claim that Rather’s memos were faked to cover up for Bush, then they’ll turn around and fake stuff up themselves. You can’t trust anything you get from them. So stick to reliable sources. Eric Holder says the feds didn’t do anything wrong, correct?”

“That’s what he says.”

“Then you can take it to the bank. We all know there are people out there who would attack Holder just because of his race. He’s an embattled public servant. So let’s make sure the truth gets out, shall we? Now, let’s see what’s next. There was apparently a riot in Wisconsin. A flash-mob thing. I think there was also one in Philadelphia a while back. This looks like a great opportunity for some serious cultural analysis on problems in the inner city. Estelle, didn’t you minor in black studies? You want to work on this?”

“I only glanced at it this weekend sir. Were any of the victims black?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t look at it much either. I’m so tired of Wisconsin. Yes, Beth?”

“Sir, the blogs say all the victims were white, and the mob was black.”

“How many times do I have to tell you to ignore those right wing extremist blogs? We need some primary sources. Estelle, can you get facts on this?”

“What if it turns out the blogs are right and there are no black victims? I don’t know how to handle such a case. Anything I write could be used to attack underprivileged minorities. I thought that was against our mission statement.”

“Well, if that turns out to be the case, just leave race out of it completely. You can at least get some numbers of people arrested and people hurt and so forth. Remember to leave all the names out so people don’t draw any erroneous conclusions and inappropriately make this a racial thing. You can fall back on the underage confidentiality thing for that if you need to. OK, the final big subject is the crash of that helicopter that killed a bunch of SEALs. Clearly, this is a great opening to talk about what Bush did wrong in Afghanistan that has made it a quagmire. Who wants to work on that?”

“I do!” “Me, me!” “Please, can I do that one?” “No, I want to do it!” ….


Today’s dose of comedy: Twitter will save Democrats in 2012, says speaker at DNC

I can’t do much better than to quote the first paragraph of this article in its entirety:

Democrats are hoping they’ve found a secret weapon for winning back the House in 2012: Twitter.

To quote a famous faux-professor, stop laughing. It get’s better:

“We know that we’re up against a team of about 43 think tanks on the other side. … But when you engage them in a good debate, they’re shallow."

As opposed to the 140 character sound bites in Twitter? You’re going to make a sophisticated argumentative reponse tht snds lik its a txt msg bcuz u haf 2 cmprss n2 140 chars? ROFL!

Why, the event was so successful, one delegate created a Twitter account! Right there at the event! Really!

A Democratic leadership aide described the event as a “nice hands-on training” for Members less familiar with social media, and it even led to one Member signing up for Twitter on the spot:
@DelegateDonna (Democratic Del. Donna Christensen of the Virgin Islands).

Just think – a DNC delegate managed to do something so complicated that thousands of teenagers do it unassisted every day! What a triumph! 2012 is in the bag, man!

Yep, social media is going to save the Democrats. It will finally, finally get their elegant, persuasive message out.

They’ve had such tremendous obstacles, after all. Why, they’ve had to rely on such limited resources up to now. They’ve only had a bunch of their own think tanks, three broadcast news networks, one cable news channel that openly supports them and another that keeps a fig leaf of pretense that they don’t, every remaining non-bankrupt major city paper except the Wall Street Journal, a slew of pretentious magazines, and a government-funded national radio network that has come right out and admitted where they stand. On the Internet, they’ve had to rely on such a thin guard of sites: Huffington Post, Daily Kos, Media Matters, DogLakeOnFire (or whatever it is, I forget), TPM, etc. etc. I mean, just how far can Soros’ billions go? Those stupid rubes must need some serious educating to realize the wonder and magnificence that is collectivism. The work just never ends!

Hey, at least they’ve stopped explaining that Obama just needs to make more speeches. He seems to have taken that to heart. In the midst of some of the biggest foreign policy happenings of the decade, Obama has decided the best place he can spend time is the golf course. I’d like to disagree with him, but given what he would probably do if he actually did anything, I really can’t.

They’ve got a president who would rather be a dictator, but the problem is their message.

They were given control of all branches of the federal government, and the result was an economy in the dumper, unprecedented and unsupportable debt, one foreign policy blunder after another, a healthcare bill so hated that it help them suffer an historic election loss in 2010… but their real problem is getting their message out.

As in 2010, I hope this delusion continues. Please, please let them keep getting their message out. The union protesters in Madison, for example, are doing great work in this area.

They have clearly communicated the Democratic Party  message. It’s this: You intend to keep on sucking every possible bit of money while telling the rest of us exactly what sort of lives we’re allowed to lead.

That’s your message in a nutshell. Good news: it will fit in a post on Twitter.


Palin is the Right’s Tank

In the online multiplayer game Final Fantasy, players must collaborate to get very far in the game. Individuals train up at the beginning by fighting weak mythical creatures, but taking on the powerful monsters they meet later requires teams with assigned roles.*

It’s all self-organizing; no one at the game maker assigns a player to a task. Players find roles they are good at, and team up with others who possess other skills.

Teams normally have an interesting role called a “tank”. This player has the capability to attract and hold a monster’s attention, absorb a tremendous amount of damage from the monster, and regenerate quickly from the damage. Other players use the distraction of the tank to attack the monster in various ways, and if the team does their job, eventually the monster succumbs to their combined efforts.

If you’re on a team with a tank, you don’t have to like the tank much. You just have to appreciate the tank’s capabilities. Your main objective is to subdue the monster.

In my mind, this maps very naturally to the role of Sarah Palin in bringing down the monster of collectivism.

OK, OK, this sounds like the kind of high-falutin’, silly comparison that people like Maureen Dowd use for a cheap column in the New York Times. But attend me: this kind of metaphor is going to work a lot better with someone in their twenties than something we old guys would naturally use from a 1960s TV show.

I came around to this comparison as a way of explaining my own opinions of Palin to the younger set that hangs around with my sons. It’s sometime hard for me to explain what I like about her, because I’m not overly impressed with Palin’s leadership potential or her deep thinking about the issues. I haven’t seen much evidence that she possesses leadership or deep thinking in any great quantity.**

I am impressed, though, with her intuition, her courage, and her resilience. She absolutely refuses to be intimidated by the usual post-modern, politically-correct leftist BS. She absorbs anything the self-righteous Olbermann types can throw at her, laughs it off, and “punches back twice as hard”, to follow the advice of a well-known leftist.

The constant, withering attacks from legacy media do cause some damage to her image, according to various surveys and polls. However, she has a core group that regards every such attack as proof that she’s right. These folks have been looking for someone of consequence to tell the left-leaning media to pi$$ up a rope for a long time. The fact that it’s a woman doing it just adds to the frission.

Of course, there’s a core group on the left that regards her as beneath contempt and laps up everything the legacy media hands out. They are joined by the pusillanimous establishment Republican types who still quiver in fear that the Washington Post might say something negative about them, and go into a fan-waving fainting spell when they see someone with enough self-confidence and guts to not give a whit what the lefties at the Post think.

Both groups attack her regularly. Amazingly, though, after the attacks die down and Palin gets back to her tweets and Facebook postings, the damage seems to dissipate. Her unfavorable numbers oscillate around, but the key is that they do oscillate; they don’t go negative and stay there. Plus, the more illogical and mean-spirited attacks sometimes have the opposite effect of damaging the attackers and helping Palin.

So my message to those on the right who are not especially enamored of Palin is this: you need her. She’s the tank on the team. The leftist monster must be slain.***

I’m not the only one thinking along these lines, of course. I first mentioned the tank comparison in a comment at Legal Insurrection last week, and William Jacobson seems to be on the same general page in his post yesterday. This is just my way of explaining why we need her, even if we don’t think she’s perfect.

I have no idea what her chances to become president are, and at this point it’s too early to care. She’s certainly not my top choice, but she comes in well ahead of Mitt “Plastic Fantastic” Romney. (Mike “Worst of Both Worlds” Huckabee isn’t even on the list; if the GOP is stupid enough to nominate him, they might as well prepare for a third party).

As long as she’s highlighting the dishonesty and mendacity of the left, the overall bias of the media, and the cowardice and privilege-protecting mewling of the establishment GOP, she has my support. It will take a team to do what has to be done, and we need a tank. She’s the best one we have right now.

(*) I’ve never playing Final Fantasy, but as the father of two teen boys, it’s a frequent topic of conversation around the house. Actual FF players, please forgive my no-doubt incomplete understanding of the game’s concepts.

(**) Not that these are necessary attributes to be elected president, based on some recent examples.

(***) For civility-obsessed idiots, that’s a metaphor.