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June 30, 2007

After Virtue

As part of my working vacation, I’ve started reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. I read it about 25 years ago and remember liking it. I’m liking it even more this time.

In the opening chapters AM tries to make the case that to understand philosophy’s current moral predicament, we have to see its history. This is (was?) a novel notion within the Anglo philosophical tradition that sees the history of ideas as relevant to modern thought as Aristotelian physics is to quantum mechanics. AM looks at one of the more popular and pervasive moral philosophies, emotivism, which is the belief that saying “X is morally good” is the same as “I approve of X. Please do X,” or, more succinctly, “Yay X!” AM takes this notion apart analytically — for instance, emotivism’s approval is a moral approval, so it fails as an explanation of morality — but more importantly wonders why it caught on. He shows, rather brilliantly, that emotivism was dreamed up by philosophers reacting against G.E. Moore’s claim that the moral good is an objective primitive that cannot be further explained. But, says AM, Moore’s philosophy was attractive to people who wanted there to be an objective good to support their subjective views of what’s right and wrong. The emotivists saw that this was the case and concluded that therefore all assertions of moral goodness are merely disguised expressions of subjective approval.

AM does not yet conclude that all moral philosophy must therefore be understood historically. But he’s working toward that, for he wants to understand how philosophical ethics has gone so wrong. Then he’s going to set it right. Brilliant. And fun.

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Working on vacation works!

Faced with the prospect of not having any children in the house for most of July, my wife and I decided to go someplace fun in a twosome fashion. But we both feel the burden of having a good time, so we took the pressure off by deciding to work on vacation.

That means we loaded up the car with books and have headed off to my family’s summer cottage, having checked with my siblings to make sure we have it to ourselves for a few days. So, I’m sitting here reading, and writing some stuff I’ve meant to write. At night we’ll eat food we like, and see some plays at Shakespeare & Co. It is exceedingly pleasant.

On the other hand, for the next few days, I’m on dialup. (It also means that I’m using AOL. If you have a better way for me to use dialup very occasionally, let me know.) Thank goodness there are usually parking spaces outside the public library within reach of its wifi signal early in the morning when I go into town to buy groceries, newspapers, and the best sourdough bread in the country.

And now I must get back to work!

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June 29, 2007

Breaking News: Supreme Court throws out Welfare because it “discriminates against the rich”

The Supreme Court today followed the logic of its decision throwing out attempts to diversify public schools by throwing out all welfare programs. “In this country, we do not discriminate based upon your economic class,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts for the majority. “Next up: providing the poor with public defenders,” he promised in a footnote.

In the wake of this latest blow, the Democratic leadership of the Senate consulted actuarial tables to see when they are likely to have “a chance to replace one of these motherf*ckers,” and then committed mass suicide. “It was the only honorable thing to do,” said Harry Reid in his note. [Tags: ]

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The common sense candidate

Fred Thompson, the actor slated to be appointed vice president after Cheney resigns because of health issues later this summer, says Americans are ready for some common sense policies.

Sure, who isn’t. But that’s the sort of thing a candidate says to postpone our discovering we disagree with him. Likewise, Obama talks about coming together around our shared American values.

But the fact is that we don’t hold our sense in common. And, while we can come up with values we Americans generally share, they’re too broad to guide implementation. We disagree with one another. On some issues, we really really disagree. Really really really.

Now, Fred Thompson is just a manly actor who takes Reagan as his role model, which is aiming pretty low. Obama, on the other hand, I find inspiring and has unlimited potential; I’d be thrilled to have him as our candidate. Obama has, of course, been filling in the details of his policies, because appeals to common sense and shared values can only put off disagreement for so long. [Tags: ]

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June 28, 2007

Occult of the Amateur

No, the title of this post makes no sense. But it sounds clever, and that’s what counts, right?

Anyway, Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur , and I have been debating, once at WSJ.com and once at Supernova. But neither of those have been posted yet. But the Supernova after-debate debate is available now. It’s less structured than the actual Supernova on-stage conversation, and is less detailed than our rather long WSJ.com exchange (which the WSJ is editing down). I think it’s the weakest of the three encounters — we had just come off the stage — but at least it’s up. (The on-stage debate should be up soon.) [Tags: ]

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Best MacBook shell?

People seem to like the Speck case for the MacBook, but there are some worrisome reviews at Amazon about dust getting trapped and scratching the MB, and about the difficulty of removing the case without scratching the MB.

Granted that there are bigger problems in the world: Nevertheless, do you have a recommendation for a shell for the MB to protect it from the harsh winds of time?

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Micah on Bloomberg

Micah Sifry, trenchant as always, in The Nation says Bloomberg can influence the election just by looking like he might run. Says Micah:

Merely by toying with a run, Bloomberg—who registered between 10 and 15 percent in the polls after he announced his change of party—can force the major candidates to pay attention to issues dear to his heart. Fortunately, many of them are sensible, like gun control, progressive immigration reform, reducing carbon emissions, trying new ways to break the poverty cycle and transparency in government. Even though he trampled civil rights when the Republican convention was held in New York City, and his police force continues to take an authoritarian approach toward free speech and assembly, Bloomberg has tried to calm, not fan, fears of terrorism. We could do a lot worse, given how many megalomaniacal billionaires this country seems to produce.

Despite some alignment on the issues, Micah regrets that Bloomberg is ignoring the “sideways-up” organizing:

Yes, the blogs are talking about Bloomberg today, but he’s talking at us, not with us. He may have made his money selling high-priced computer terminals and data, but his approach to technology and the Internet is all top-down. His vaunted “311″ universal phone number has indeed improved city services, but the communication is all one way. In 2001 Bloomberg capped his $74 million campaign by mailing a videotape of his final campaign commercial to every household; in 2005 his re-election campaign had the best micro-targeting database services that money could buy. If anything, his entry onto the edge of the playing field will further accelerate the presidential money chase, giving an advantage to buckmeisters like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney over other contenders, putting serious pressure on Obama and draining funds from down-ballot candidates as a side effect.

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June 27, 2007

Elizabeth Edwards vs. Ann Coulter

I feel bad giving any more electrons to Ann Coulter. But I love Elizabeth Edwards so much, that I’m doing it anyway. You see, to quote Elizabeth’s fund-raising letter, “On Monday, Ann announced that instead of using more homophobic slurs to attack John, she will just wish that John had been ‘killed in a terrorist assassination plot.’” What Coulter says to stay in the headlines strikes me as about as important as the announcement that Paris Hilton found her jumpsuit chafing.

But I can see why Elizabeth Edwards would find this worth calling into to “Hardball” about it. Coulter responded by pretending that Elizabeth was asking her never to say anything again. She also tried to say that calling Edwards a “fag” and wishing he were assassinated is ok because she strongly disagrees with his politics and thinks he’s hypocritical. Elizabeth Edwards is right.

The quarter ends June 30. Feel free to give to Edwards if only to keep a serious candidate and a decent person in the game. [Disclosure: I've been doing some volunteer consulting to the Edwards campaign on Internet policy.] [Tags: ]

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Identity management in an unequal world

When talking with Brad Templeton at Supernova, he put perfectly the misgivings about even the best of the digital ID systems that I’ve been trying to express for years. In The Paradox of Identity Management, Brad says, “If you make something easy to do, it will be done more often.” Thus:

The easier it is to give somebody ID information, the more often it will be done. And the easier it is to give ID information, the more palatable it is to ask for, or demand it.

Because it’s easier, more merchants will ask it of us. We will thus give away more and more personal information.

Brad goes on to connect this with fears about how this technology might be (= will be) used by tyrannies.

I continue to believe that we are best off addressing the identity problems locally, at the edges, rather than by putting in place a new layer or infrastructure. Let sites continue to design their own solutions to their own problems. If the credit card companies need stronger authentication, then let them handle it. If you want single sign-in, then get yourself a password manager like RoboForm. There are just too many unintended consequences of monkeying with something as basic as identity. And we should be especially concerned that the demand for identity management is coming mainly top down, not bottom up.


Doc responds to Brad. Doc hopes that VRM (vendor relationship management) can overcome the “market power asymmetries” that are at the heart of Brad’s (and my) concerns. Doc writes:

In a VRM system, IDM (identity management) provides (perhaps even defaults) to the choice not to provide data the customer would rather keep private, including names, addresses and every other piece of information not required to do business at hand. And let’s face it, in many (if not most) retail transactions there is no reason to give the vendor anything more than our money.

First, I’m surprised that defaulting to keeping info private merits only a “perhaps even.” I think this may have been a slip o’ the pen on Doc’s part.

Even so, Doc is ignoring the existing asymmetry. If Amazon is your favorite place to buy books, if Amazon requires more info than you think you want to give, you may be willing to pay the price. If it asks for personal info in order to “improve your shopping experience,” you may give it even if you don’t see its relevance. And if every bookstore on the Web decides it wants to ask for more info than it did before, you will start to take that as the norm. I believe that’s a predictable result — as per Brad’s paradox — of making it easy to give out personal information.

In fact, it seems to be a requirement for VRM to succeed. As Doc concludes: “VRM cannot succeed unless it overcomes Brad’s Paradox. If it makes that jump, it will bring IDM systems along for the ride.” But, since VRM is all about letting vendors know more about your preferences and intentions, it really doesn’t overcome the paradox. It depends on making it easier to give out personal info so that it can be done more often.

Doc makes the case for the benefits of keeping vendors well-informed. It would mean, for example, that we aren’t subjected to pointless, annoying ads for stuff we wouldn’t want anyway. And I may well be willing to trade my biography for that. (Of course, I would also want to be able to control how much sharing a merchant does of the information I’ve entrusted with it.)

I am more concerned about the effect of Brad’s paradox on social and political forums where anonymity is currently, and thankfully, the default.


Here‘s the much less elegant and clear way I put it just about a year ago when arguing for keeping anonymity as the default:

My fear is that we are in the process of building a new platform for identity in order to address some specific problems. We will create a system that, like packaged software, has defaults built in. The most important defaults in this case will not be the ones explicitly built into the system by the software designers. The most important defaults will be set by the contingencies of an economic marketplace that does not particularly value anonymity, privacy, dissent, social role playing, the exploration of what one is ashamed of, and the pure delight of wearing masks in public. Economics will drive the social norms away from the social values emerging. That is my fear.

I have confidence that the people designing these systems are going to create the right software defaults. The people I know firsthand in this are privacy fanatics and insistent that individuals be in control of their data. This is a huge and welcome shift from where digital ID was headed just a few years ago. We all ought to sigh in relief that these folks are on the job.

But, once these systems are in place, vendors of every sort will of course require strong ID from us. If I want to buy from, say, Amazon, they are likely to require me to register with some ID system and authenticate myself to them…far more strongly and securely than I do when I pay with a credit card in my local bookstore. Of course, I don’t have to shop at Amazon. But why won’t B&N make the same demand? And Powells? And then will come the blogs that demand I join an ID system in order to leave a comment. How long before I say, “Oh, to hell with it,” and give in? And then I’ve flipped my default. Rather than being relatively anonymous, I will assume I’m relatively identified.

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Free the Internet 700 – a positive sign from AT&T? Also, John Kneuer’s video

Harold Feld, who knows more about this in his little finger than 100 of the smartest little fingers you care to pile up, thinks AT&T’s “tepid expression of possible interest in a Frontline ‘E Block’ license” is big news, “on par with support from Senator John Kerry and Presidential candidate John Edwards.” Says Harold:

That looks pretty tame, until one considers the speaker and the context. In spectrum lobbying terms, this is roughly the equivalent of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saying that, under the right circumstances, he would accept an invitation to visit Israel and meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Frontline is bidding for some of the 700mH spectrum so it can act as a wholesaler, opening up the band to whatever businesses want to participate. This is a gazillion times preferable to selling it all to the incumbents who will continue to freeze out competitors and thus freeze out all innovations that are not theirs and that do not support their particular business model. AT&T now says it’d consider bidding for a spread of spectrum even if it were required to act as a wholesaler and open it up to all comers.

Harold speculates that AT&T sees this as a way of getting the national coverage it wants. It would rather have coverage at the price of openness than cede it to cable.


David Isenberg has created a transcript of the snippet available of John Kneuer — Bush policy guy — at Supernova. The bit David had available started immediately after I asked him the first question. Since he posted it, the entire video has gone up on the Supernova site.


Meanwhile, the Washington Post has run a scary op-ed opposing open access from two guys who have taken money from the the telecom trade association. I know two industry insiders who are going to be receiving some very expensive single malt whiskey from some powerful friends! [Tags: ]

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