Joho the BlogMay 2009 - Page 3 of 6 - Joho the Blog

May 20, 2009

Vegetarian whine

A fancy restaurant that assures a diner that it can take care of vegetarians and then serves a plate of side-dish vegetables as the main course:

1. Has an incompetent chef.
2. Ought to be ashamed of its lack of imagination.
3. Is as embarrassingly ignorant about vegetarianism as they would be if they reassured a diabetic that they don’t cook with diabetes.
4. Is doing the equivalent of serving a grilled cheese sandwich or a plate of Ritz crackers and peanut butter, except that either of those would be preferable.

Note that this is not a multiple choice question.

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The White House wants comments on open government

The White House is looking for help formulating a directive on open government:

Executive Office of the President
Office of Science and Technology Policy
Transparency and Open Government

SUMMARY: The President’s January 21, 2009, memorandum entitled, Transparency and Open Government, directed the Chief Technology Officer, in coordination with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the General Services Administration (GSA), to develop a set of recommendations that will inform an Open Government Directive. This directive will be issued by OMB and will instruct executive departments and agencies on specific actions to implement the principles set forth in the Presidents memorandum. Members of the public are invited to participate in the process of developing recommendations via email or the White House website at http://www.whitehouse.gov/open offering comments, ideas, and proposals about possible initiatives and about how to increase openness and transparency in government.

DATES: Comments must be received by June 19, 2009.
ADDRESSES: Submit comments by one of the following methods:
http://www.whitehouse.gov/open
E-mail: [email protected]
Mail: Office of Science and Technology Policy, Attn: Open Government
Recommendations, 725 17th Street, ATTN: Jim Wickliffe, Washington, DC 20502.

More here.

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May 19, 2009

“The Daily Show”: a fanboy’s notes from the audience

Our thoughtful and inventive children gave us tickets to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for Chanukah. Yesterday was the day.

We had an easy ride from Boston to NYC on the MegaBus, which was clean and on time. But, although they promised free wifi, it was actually wifi-free once we left Boston. (Word order makes such a difference!) Nevertheless, for $15 each way per person, it’s hard to muster a good head of complaint.

We stayed at the Blakely Hotel, which was excellent, especially since they let us put four in a room. The rate included a continental breakfast. Put a few of those together on a plate and you’ve got yourself a breakfast.

We spent the morning and early afternoon walking around lower Manhattan, then subwayed up to the Museum of Natural History — oh those bones still amaze, plus, unlike today’s fancy-dancy science centers, you can actually learn stuff there — and then walked through Central Park to the Daily Show studios on 11th Ave., between 51st and 52nd.

When you get the tickets (an email), you’re told that the line starts to form at 3:30. So, some of us got there at 2:30. Sure enough, there were ten people ahead of us already. At 5:15, they actually let you into the building. So, it’s a looong time on line, or, as some of you say, in line. While you are waiting, you are read a long proclamation of restrictions: No large bags, no weapons, no drugs, no food, no gum. All phones off. Be prepared to go through the metal detector. Show your drivers license. (No one under 18 is allowed in.) No twittering or blogging, especially since your electronic devices have to be switched off. No flash photos. Don’t ask Jon to hug you, kiss you, sign autographs, or “anything else creepy.” There are bathrooms downstairs, but once they let you in, they will not let you out.

Once we seated, there was another hour of waiting, much of it with punkish rock music blaring, not quite loudly enough to drown out the 18 year olds behind us who thought they were very witty indeed. After a while, the warm-up comedian came out. No set jokes, just audience interaction. The audience seemed to love him. He was a little too much of a humiliate-the-audience sort of guy for my taste, but I’m old and easily made to squirm.

Then Jon Stewart came out and took questions. Because the show was running late — during rehearsals they discovered some of the material, “how you say, sucked,” JS explained, and it had to be rewritten — he only took four or five questions, which he used for riffing. When someone responded that it was his first time in the city, JS explained why NYC “is a city that works” compared to DC, which irrationally has four “Eighth Streets,” and therefore is a “shithole.” (As you might imagine, it was way funnier in JS’s hands). Some kid started to ask whether he should go to the funeral of his best-friend’s fiance’s dad, and JS cut him off and said, “Yes! You go to the funeral” even though you don’t know the dead guy, because your best friend asked you to. And you try not to make the funeral all about you. It was moral-stance-as-humor, which we love JS for (and, I suppose, some hate him for).

Anyway, JS’s warm-up was great. He’s smart, funny, and a mensch, which is why we came down from Boston to see him.

The show was pretty good, but you can judge for yourself here. I loved the opening segment, about Obama at Notre Dame. The Wyatt Cenac at-desk interview was pretty funny, but I am not his biggest fan; our kids loved it.

While waiting, we had speculated about who the guest would be. Might it be Will Ferrell, who was in town for SNL and has a movie opening? Might it be Joss Whedon, simply because we love him? How about Dick Cheney, and if so, would it be appropriate for me to yell “War criminal!” from the audience? As it turned out, the guest was Indianapolis 500 driver Sarah Fisher.

By the way, throughout the taping, it was odd to hear JS swear. I think it actually works better with the bleeps; the swear are jarring. At least until we get used to them.

At the end, Stephen Colbert came on the monitor and they chit-chatted. It went on for an unusually long time, and it was only after JS said something like, “Ok, let’s do this,” that we realized that they were really just chit-chatting; the official, on-air promo started after that. It was actually pretty charming. When Colbert said what he’d done that weekend, it took JS’s prompting to get him to say that not only had he received an honorary degree, the university named a building after his father, who had been a provost (or something) there; Colbert’s reticence to brag was, of course, at odds with his persona.

Then it was over. We walked to 9th Ave, twittered for vegetarian restaurant suggestions, and ended up having a terrific meal at Zen Palate. Then, onto the MegaBush for a 2AM arrival.

Was it worth doing? Absolutely. We all love the show. If anything, we admire JS more than ever. It’s a long wait, and you are merely a prop for the show, but there Jon Stewart was, right in front of us! Being all Jon Stewart-y!

Our one regret: At the very beginning, JS made some comment about something weird happening in the audience. We always wonder what he’s going on when he makes these audiences references. But we couldn’t see what weird thing had happened! Nooooo! [Tags: ]

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Brewster Kahle on Google Books

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, and the instigator of an open access effort to scan books, has a good op-ed in the Washington Post about the Google Books settlement (some links).

Brewster focuses on the monopolistic concerns about the proposed settlement. He concludes:

This settlement should not be approved. The promise of a rich and democratic digital future will be hindered by monopolies. Laws and the free market can support many innovative, open approaches to lending and selling books. We need to focus on legislation to address works that are caught in copyright limbo. And we need to stop monopolies from forming so that we can create vibrant publishing environments.

Personally, I do not want to see the deal approved unamended. There are some pretty clearly anti-competitive clauses that need to come out (the “most favored nation” one in particular). And the proposed Book Rights Registry has too much power, especially since its supervised by parties whose interests are not aligned first and foremost with the public’s interests (which are, I believe, to achieve the Constitutional desire “[t]o promote the progress of science and useful arts” and to achieve the Internet’s desire to provide maximal access to the works of culture).

(Here’s a much longer interview with Brewster).

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May 18, 2009

Ridiculous zoom

At first sight, the images at the Nano GigaPan blog look like fairly ordinary electron microscope photos. But notice the zoom button.

Here’s an ant. Here’s some blood and hair.

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South Carolina investigates sending Craig to the big house

Craig of the List blogs that South Carolina’s Attorney General General Henry McMaster feels he has “no alternative” but to investigate criminally prosecuting craigslist for continuing to run sex ads, even though (as Craig explains), craigslist has complied with the AG’s requests, and the ads that are running there are far more tame than what you can get in more mainstream locales. Yes, Mr. McMaster, I’m sure your hands are tied in this matter.

(And, by the way, sir, if you want your hands tied in that other way, you can find someone in the local yellow pages who’ll do it for you. Just look under “Adult Services.”)

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May 17, 2009

Michael Steele comes out against marriage

From the AP:

SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Republicans can reach a broader base by recasting gay marriage as an issue that could dent pocketbooks as small businesses spend more on health care and other benefits, GOP Chairman Michael Steele said Saturday.

Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

“Now all of a sudden I’ve got someone who wasn’t a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for,” Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. “So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money.”

This argument counters the “No one’s hurt by it” defense of same sex marriage. The only problem is that Steele’s argument is also exactly an argument against “opposite marriage.”

Yeah, that’ll catch on, Republicans!

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WolframAlpha’s big problem

After a day of poking at the awesome WolframAlpha and watching some of the reactions around the Web, a major problem has emerged. WA is fantastic if it has what you’re looking for. But if it doesn’t, it looks like it’s failed, as in: “What? It can’t tell me how much energy it would take to move Henry VIII one kilometer, expressed in cheeseburger-calories? What a piece of crap!”

Google doesn’t have this problem. If you get no hits, it’s almost always because you’ve so egregiously mistyped something that no one else on the planet has ever posted anything with that same typo. Or, it’s because you’ve put an odd phrase in quotes, which requires taking the special action of, well, putting things in quotes. Almost always, Google succeeds at what it does (find pages that contain particular text), even when it fails at doing what you want (find a particular answer).

WolframAlpha, on the other hand, is like a roomful of idiot savants. Each knows a scary amount about a topic. And, unlike a such a roomful, WA also knows how to recombine and compute what each of the savants knows. But if the room doesn’t have the savant you’re looking for, you get back nothing but a “Huh?”

The eclecticism of WolframAlpha is its selling point. But the delight that it knows things you would never have guessed at means that you can have trouble guessing what it knows about. The question is whether general users will go back enough times to be trained on the sorts of questions it can answer. If not, WA will remain an awesome tool for specialists but will not become the broad, general-purpose tool it wants to be.

It would, however, be a completely awesome addition to Google…a path I suspect Stephen Wolfram does not want to take.

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May 16, 2009

Whitehouse.gov: Give your bloggers’ names!

The Whitehouse.gov blog continues to improve, by which I mean it’s getting less like the glass-topped version of White House press releases. But it’s missing a big opportunity by keeping the blog posts anonymous.

The White House bloggers seem quite aware that a press release isn’t a post and are trying to create a difference between the two. For instance, the blogger begins the post on President Obama’s speech on credit card reform with a friendly paragraph about the citizen who introduced him. It’s not much and it’s still directly tied to the President’s remarks, but that paragraph doesn’t read like a press release or like a speech. And, that post ends with the blogger’s evaluation of the President’s proposal: “Long overdue.” That last phrase, expressing some personal enthusiasm, is uncalled for, and thus is refreshing, for blogging is a medium for the uncalled and the uncalled-for. (Which is why I love it.)

Still, it’s hard to see how the posts can blow past this minimal level of bloggishness…unless and until the bloggers start signing them.

The problem, I believe, is that the bloggers feel (and are made to feel) the awful weight of speaking for the White House. Their posts come straight from the offices behind the long lawn and the pillared portico. In some weird, ineffable way, they represent the building, its inhabitants, and its policies, just as press releases do. Press releases have authority because they’re not an individual expression. They have authority because they are unsigned and thus speak for the institution itself. Blog posts come from the same building, and, if they’re unsigned, maybe they’re supposed to have similar authority, except written in a slangier style. So, we don’t yet know exactly what to make of these unsigned posts. And neither do the bloggers, I think. It’s too new and it’s too weird.

But, if the bloggers signed their posts, it would instantly become clear that bloggers are not speaking for the institution of the White House the way press releases do. We would have something — the bloggers — that stands between the posts and the awesomeness of the White House. That would create just enough room for the bloggers to express something other than the Official View. They would be freed to make the White House blog far more interesting, relevant, human, and central to the Administration’s mission than even the most neatly typed press releases ever could be.

Already most of the bloggiest posts at Whitehouse.gov come from guest bloggers who are named and identified by their position. They feel free-er to speak for themselves and as themselves, in their own voice. Now, I don’t expect the official White House bloggers to speak for themselves exactly. They are partisans and employees; they work for the White House because they love President Obama. But, if they signed their names, they could speak more as themselves.

This might let them do more of what the White House blog needs to do, in my opinion. For example, I’d like to read a White House blogger explaining the President’s decision to try some Guantanamo prisoners using the military tribunals President Bush created. White House communications officials probably consider it bad politics to acknowledge the controversy by issuing a defense. But bloggers write about what’s interesting, and hearing a spirited, partisan justification would be helpful, and encouraging. I personally think that Pres. Obama probably has good reasons for his decision in this matter, but the “good politics” of official communications are too timid. I want to hear a blogger on the topic. And I would love to learn to go to the White House blog first on questions such as this. And isn’t that where the White House would like me first to go?

Bloggers with names are the best way to interrupt the direct circuit from politics to official public expression. That would put people in the middle…which is exactly where we want them. [Tags: ]


Posted in slightly improved form at HuffingtonPost and TechPresident.

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Rebecca MacKinnon on China and Internet governance

Rebecca MacKinnon reports on China’s desire to shut down the Internet Governance Forum. The IGF was formed in 2005 to discuss among governments and some human rights groups how to govern the Internet. China now thinks it’s a pointless group. Its statement ends with a rousing defense of the right of nations to block access to Web sites they believe go against the interests of their people. And, of course, every country does reserve that right. (Don’t they?) The question is how much, and what, and in whose actual interest.


Later that day: Newsweek has a good article out on Herdict, The Berkman’s Jonathan Zittrain’s tool for crowd-sourcing info about blockages, outages, and censorship.

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