Joho the Blog » politics

February 1, 2013

Humane microtargeting is here

At an amazing dinner last night — amazing because of the dozen people there, although the food was good, too — the conversation turned to shared cynicism about the lessons the 2012 presidential campaigns learned about the use of the Internet. Both sides seem to have taken away the idea that victory depends upon evermore tightly targeted ads. Once the campaign can figure out that you are a 37 year old woman, who is a lapsed Catholic who owns a hunting rifle but favors rigorous background checks, who has a daughter with a chronic medical condition, whose sister married a woman from Colombia, and who once ate a panda and secretly liked it, the campaign can target you with marketing material that will press all your buttons and only your buttons.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the campaigns used this micro-specific information to appeal to our reason and judgment. But the campaigns are marketing machines that aim at getting us to make a one-time “purchase decision” and if they can do so by appealing to our lizard brains, they will.

I share much of this cynicism, and all the more acutely because my rose-colored glasses were polished by the 2004 Dean campaign. It used the Net to raise unheard of amounts of money via email campaigns, but it also tried to scale intra-supporter conversations by having supporters connect laterally. The Dean campaign was really focused on winning the nomination [SPOILER: It didn't], but it was also genuine in its belief that the Net would enable a new type of connectedness that could subvert (at least to some extent) the hierarchical nature of campaigns and of governments. (Source: Joe Trippi‘s book. Also, I got to watch up-close.) That makes it all the more disappointing to me that the campaigns are focused on the Net as a medium for personalized marketing, rather than as tools of connection. (We’ll see what Organizing for America becomes.)

Nevertheless, I am not as cynical as most of my dinner companions, perhaps because I’m old and remember politics before the Internet, or because I’m old and foolish, or, most likely both.

So, we can and should bemoan the failure of the two major parties’ campaigns to more fully embrace the Net as more than a cheap way to broadcast messages. We should be cynical about the top-down, one-way, manipulative, non-conversational “messaging” that has become the main way campaigns communicate. But we should also remember that we have a powerful example of microtargeting being used for building multiway, lateral conversations: The Web.

I mean something obvious. In the days before the Internet, our news came from a handful of TV and radio channels and newspapers. If you wanted to know a candidate’s position, you went down to his (yes, almost always his) headquarters and picked up the handful of position papers they kept there. You of course argued with your friends and co-workers, but those conversations and the ideas they generated stayed very local.

All of that has been changed by the Web. We can get endless amounts of information and can engage in endless conversations. Of course much of that information is bad and many of the conversations are stupid-making. Still I would not trade our current vibrant democracy of conversation for the prior media regime that delivered the news in a rolled up bundle of pages once a day.

But you already know that. The question last night was whether we’ll ever see micro-targeting that is lateral, conversational, and not, well, evil. And my answer is: yes, it exists appropriately transformed on the Web. Blog posts, for example, are globally available, but are not exactly broadcast. Rather, a self-selected group comes to read them, and sometimes some people in that group recommend a post to one of their own networks. Likewise, tweets go to followers, and to the followers of those who re-tweet them. Likewise, on mailing lists people circulate links that are “targeted” to the interests that hold those lists together. The Web is what conversational, lateral microtargeting looks like.

Granted we tend not to think about the Web that way because the term “targeting” is so obnoxious. But take the war out of targeting and you have the idea that appropriate content is put in front of appropriate people, which is how the Web — wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly wildly imperfectly — works.

But there’s more than language at stake here. If we are feeling cynical and depressed about our political processes because the political parties are using the Internet as a medium for aiming messages straight at the reptilian brains of the citizenry, then, yes, we should despair. But if we look outside of the campaigns at the general political ecosystem, we are indeed seeing the sort of lateral, conversational engagement that the Web promised us. The problems with this Web ecosystem — legion and serious — are due primarily to how the affordances of the Web engage fallible humans (i.e., humans). So, we may still feel depressed and cynical, but not because the political system seems to have structural reasons why it cannot reform itself. Reform is possible outside of that system.

We should therefore feel depressed and cynical for better reasons.

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January 29, 2013

[berkman] “LOIC [low-orbit ion cannon] will tear us apart”: The impact of tool desiogn and media portrayals in the success of activist DDOS attacks

Molly Sauter [twitter:oddletters] (from Berkman and the Center for Civic Media at MIT) is giving a lunchtime Berkman talk. She’s going to focus on Operation Payback, the Dec. 2010 action by Anonymous against those financial services that cut off Wikileaks after Wikileaks made available a massive leak of State Dept. cables. Operation Avenge Assange tried to bring down the sites of those services. Molly sees this as an evolution in media activism, expanding on the use of DDOS tactics by groups in the 1990s; [DDOS = distributed denial of service: flooding a site beyond its capacity to respond, and doing so from multiple sites.]

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Molly begins with a simple explanation of DDOS. The flooding can come from a single computer (unlikely), via a volunteer botnet, or botnets that infect other computers; the botnets communicate with a central computer, pounding on the target until it can’t handle the traffic.

Old school activists think of DDOS as a form of censorship, and thus it is not acceptable. For many digitally-enabled activists (e.g., Electronic Disturbance Theater) DDOS is a form of disobedience. For EDT, DDOS is an auxiliary form of activism: “DDOS is something you do when you’re out on the streets so your computer can be at home protesting.” DDOS is sometimes seen as a type of sit-in, although Molly thinks this is inapt. For some, DDOS is a direct form of protest, and in others, it’s an indirect and symbolic action. Anonymous melds these approaches: influence via technology + influence via media + direct action disruption.

Electronic Disturbance Theater [EDT] used Flood Net, a tool that “hurls bits” but that also lets you send a message to show up in the target computer’s error log. Cleverly, if your issue is human rights, the log might read “Human rights is not found on this server.” But, Molly says, these logs are only read by the admin, so it’s really a way for the activist to yell something for the sake of yelling. The EDT restricted targets of Flood Net and set scheduled times. EDT open sourced it in 1999. The language on the Floor Net site is comprehensible only to people who already know about the issues, e.g., Mexican Neo-Liberalism. It is intimidating for those outside of the circle. It is also very tied to a view of activism that ties actions to individuals â?? anonymous individuals, but using Flood Net requires the action of a person.

LOIC — low orbit ion cannon— was developed maybe around 2006, and forked in 2008. By Dec. 2010, versions could run on just about anything — Windows, Mac, on mobiles, within a browser… Molly goes through the differences in the different versions of it. They let you type in a URL, set some options that are set to defaults, and then you press a button. Done! (LOIC is the boss weapon from the game Command & Conquer). The button you press in the abatishchev version is labeled “IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER,” a popular meme. It has the same messaging functionality as Flood Net. The default message derives from a 4chan bestiality rape meme that Molly urges us not to google. This version “is focused on the 4chan Anonymous culture set.”

She then compares this to the NewEraCracker version. Very similar. Same “Imma chargin mah lazer” meme, but the rape meme is gone. Instead, it says “u done goofed,” the popular Jessi Slaughter meme. Jessie pissed off Anonymous, so Anonymous sent lots of pizza to her house. Her father posted a defensive video that wasn’t very smart about the Net, which got widely distributed, and which contained the line “you done goofed.” This message is more confrontational than the other version which the recipient would be unlikely to understand at all. This version of LOIC also has a “fucking hive mind mode” that lets you automate the process entirely by plugging it into an IRC server to use volunteer computers [I think].

These tools, especially the second, created a community of activists, especially in hive mind mode. There are many LOIC tutorial videos on YouTube. This reaches out to new people to join, unlike EDT’s use of language that appeals only to those already in the know. Because anyone can use it, it helps Anonymous become a community of trust.

Anonymous has also pushed DDOS as a media manipulation tactic, and used media for recruitment. Molly doesn’t know if it was a conscious decision, but DDOS ended up as a recruitment tactic.

During the four days of Operation Payback, the media coverage was very confused. For example the media weren’t sure that DDOS is illegal. (It is.) Even Gizmodo got wrong how risky DDOS is for the attacker; it wrongly claimed that the target’s log files don’t record the incoming connections during DDOS. Experienced users know to anonymize their packets, but those who came in new and used this easy-to-use tool often did not protect themselves. The Paypal 16 now under indictment were caught because PayPal stored the top 1000 IP addresses. Much of the coverage just quoted Anonymous at length. “Anonymous is a very horizontal org and there’s no press person to talk to,” but, Molly says, there was a “press IRC channel” but the media didn’t know how to use it. Some mainstream articles linked to download sites for LOIC, which may have encouraged people to download it without understanding the legality of using it.

Conclusions: “Operation Payback’s success was due to a confluence of tech, community, and news media factors. Anonymous’ use of DDOS represent an innovation in participant population and tool design. And Anonymous pushes the reframing of DDOS as a tool of media manipulation and biographical impact [how the participants think about themselves], not direct action.”

Q&A

Q: Is the paypal list public?

A: Nope.

Q: Can you bring your research up to date?

A: I’m writing my thesis now. So, no.

Q: How does being identified play into the historical mindset?

A: I got into this topic because I wanted to do my thesis on activism and anonymity. Anonymous challenges the assumption that if you’re anonymous, you’re not serious about your activism. The cultural preference for identified activism comes from the 1960s civil disobedience movement, which in turns comes from Thoreau: you break the law and accept punishment for it. But that privileges those who won’t lose their house and their family if arrested. This puts activism on the shoulders of a particular class. Anonymous disagrees. It says you can engage in civil disobedience without personal consequence.

Q: The Federalist Papers were anonymous because it implicitly was saying that the ideas are important enough not to need names attached. Anonymous not only escapes punishment, it makes it effortless â?? the amount of effort you put in is indistinguishable from that of someone whose computer was infected by a bot.

A: This is the slacktivism argument. Slacktivism challenges the expectations about what activism does. One version says you’re supposed to change something or have a solution. But slacktivism (or clicktivism) is valuable for the biographical impact.

A: Studies have looked into whether eating organic food affects your self image so that you do more, or that you merely congratulate yourself.

A: The ladder of engagement says that the big step is getting on the first rung. My view of slacktivism is that it’s widened that run. Pressing the LOIC button gets people started, and I’m in favor of people starting somewhere, when it is in a considered and useful way.

Q: How about The Jester?

A: He’s an Army veteran who explicitly aligns his morals with pro-US, anti-jihadist, anti-Anonymous DDOS. He claims to be working by himself. I don’t think his actions are ethical because they’re about silencing content. [Molly tells us that she has a presentation on DDOS ethics.]

Q: Why is “fuckng hive mind mode” a community? People are donating bandwidth. But the manual mode, where people actively decide to participate in something, is much more like people being in a community. The participants in FHHM don’t necessarily view themselves as joining in a community, although the federal govt is claiming that they are.

A: I agree. My point with FHHM was that it opens up ways of accessing that community in ways that were not possible before.

Q: LOIC is hosted at github and sourceforge, and tutorials at YouTube. Any attempts to remove?

A: LOIC and tools like it are listed as “stress-testing” tools. And it can be used that way if you aim it at your own server. It’s like a head shop selling a pipe for tobacco. During the four days of the operation, Twitter did try to shut down the Anonymous twitter account.

Q: You seem to be saying that Anonymous is becoming more respectful, shifting out of the “otherized” world of 4chan. Is there quantitative data supporting this?

A: Biella Coleman has done the most research on this. That’s where I’ve gotten my data.

Q: How many people participated?

A: It’s been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

Q: When an org provides a press contact, a journalist can always orient around that, bounce off of it. But Anonymous doesn’t work that way. How does Anonymous’ play affect coverage?

A: The media doesn’t know how to deal with orgs like Anon and Occupy. They just speak with random people, none of who speak for the org (because no one does). The opening of the press IRC channel was great, for those who found it. It let the press engage at length. But Anon is usefully weird, and thus hard for the media.

Q: [me] So, will LOIC tear us apart? Civil disobedients accept consequences in part to raise the bar so that people don’t too easily break the law. LOIC lowers that bar. If Anon were attacking services that you like, would you be as sanguine?

LOIC isn’t much used now because it’s dangerous, and there are new tools. It’s hard to take down a site.

Q: As the tools get better?

A: Permanent arms race.

Q: Arrest of Sabu?

A: It won’t kill Anonymous.

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January 21, 2013

Popular for the right reasons?

Note that I understand that in what follows, I am wildly projecting my own feelings, without any data to support my hypothesis. So be it!

Americans by and large like Barack Obama. They like his wife more, but they do like the guy. My hypothesis is that people like Obama for the right reasons.

People liked W, too. I mean, I didn’t, but I’m a shallow, petty person. But people famously liked W because he’d be good to have a beer with. My data-free hypothesis is that people like Obama for better reasons. He isn’t particularly fun to have a beer with (although I am totally open to that invitation, Mr. President), but he is a thoughtful, sincere person who accords each person dignity.

If you’re one of those who don’t like President Obama as a person, none of this applies to you. But if you’re one of us who think it’d be fun to hang out with him (note to White House: Operators are standing by), I bet it’s for perceived qualities that are actually admirable.

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December 15, 2012

I’d rather we had a right to an open Internet than a right to bear arms.

No, I’m not suggesting that we amend the Constitution to guarantee American citizens a right to access the open Internet. I’m suggesting that it’s weird that from all the rights we could imagine — a right to an education, to adequate health care, to equal pay for equal work — we continue to enshrine a right to carry guns.

Why guns of all things? Because of a fear of an armed federal take-over that made sense in 1787 but now is merely paranoia? Besides, when the feds have actually used armed force against states claiming rights, the states were defending slavery and segregation. Besides, if you’re hoping to defeat the US military, you better be pressing for a right to own tanks, jets, and, for those states with beachfronts, some battleships.

So, no, I’m not suggesting we pass an Internet Rights amendment. I am suggesting that we pass an amendment nullifying the right to bear arms. Let guns be regulated the way we regulate other objects that can harm us and kill our kids.

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December 10, 2012

Senator Colbert? Meet Beppe Grillo

Those of us who are not-so-secretly hoping that Stephen Colbert might actually run for Senate should take a look at Beppe Grillo‘s career in Italy.

A controversial political comedian and a leading blogger — he’s got some Al Franken and some George Carlin as well as some Colbert in him — Grillo formed the Five Star Movement, which organizes Italian citizens to back politicians who support the movement’s anti-corruption, green, Euro-skeptical, pro-Internet principles. In October, it led the voting in Sicily. Now the Five Star Movement is holding an online vote to choose which candidates to support.

There are certainly skeptics. But Grillo’s career as a comedian and blogger who has become a political force is pretty amazing.

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November 18, 2012

An open letter to Rep. Joe Kennedy on seizing the copyright initiative

Dear Joe,

Congratulations on your victory! I’m proud to have you as our new Congressperson from the 12th district here in Brookline and environs. Barney Frank has left you some big shoes to fill, and I’m looking forward to watching you lace up.

Barney did a great job representing our local interests. But our district, and our Commonwealth, has always looked beyond what’s good for us locals. We’ve always had an eye out for the larger common good. That’s why we keep electing Kennedys.

An issue has arisen that not only needs your support, but could help you make exactly the right kind of early mark. Forgive me if you are already on top of it, but, briefly, the Republican Study Committee on Friday issued a report on copyright reform that was — from the point of view of many of us on the Web — shockingly helpful. I say “shockingly” because Congress overall has been woefully one-sided and antiquarian on the question of copyright, taking laws designed for previous centuries and actually making them far worse.

That was Friday. By Saturday afternoon, the Hollywood lobbyists had forced Paul Teller, the head of the RSC, to withdraw the report on the specious grounds that it had not gone through “adequate review.” If so, perhaps Paul Teller should resign. But, I’m willing to bet 10,000 RomneyBucks that instead the young author of the report, Derek Khanna [twitter:dkhanna11], will take the fall.

Anyway, the report punctures three myths about copyright, and proposes four areas of reform:

  • Statutory damages reform

  • Expand Fair Use

  • Punish false copyright claims

  • Heavily limit the terms for copyright, and create disincentives for renewal

I urge you to take a look. Imagine a world with copyright reformed in this way. And if you think the proposals are wrong-headed, impractical, or whatever, at least embrace them as a starting point for a conversation this country very much needs.

This could be a great issue for you, Joe. You’ll find a whole lot of constituents who would be thrilled to see you take a leadership role in this important discussion.

And it won’t just be your constituents. You’ll find yourself surfing a wave — the Internet constituency that represents the future of our party, nation, and globe.

Looking forward to seeing you show the bold leadership your family is famous for and that has so many of us excited about your first term in Congress — the first of many, we hope!

Best,

David Weinberger
Constituent

Note: The original report was here, but people have put up extra copies in case the RSC physically removes the report from the Web. Here’s the copy I posted.

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November 15, 2012

The person who beat Nate Silver – DailyKos and journalism

One political analyst was actually ever so slightly more accurate than Nate “Poll God” Silver: Markos Moulitsas, the founder of DailyKos.

I’ve always checked in on DailyKos occasionally, but over the past year or so it’s become a multi-daily stop, and was one of my primary sources of news about the campaign. It embodies a lot of the good stuff the Net is doing to news, and some of the bad.

DailyKos is obviously a partisan site. It’s perfectly clear about that. In fact, it wants to build its followers into an effective political force. The news it presents takes sides. Yet, I find it a really useful source of political news, for a few reasons:

1. I’d rather have the bias visible than hidden.

2. My understanding itself is biased: I have political views and commitments. DailyKos generally is in line with my views. So, when I want to understand the impact of some event political event, DailyKos’ contextualization is immediately helpful; I don’t have to read through it, unpacking the assumptions that I don’t share. Reading the Republican contextualization is an interesting and even an important anthropological exercise, but DailyKos gets me to understanding much faster.

3. Although it’s a partisan site, it’s also reality-based. For example, when DailyKos happily reports today that opposition to Obamacare is at its lowest, it prominently adds, “That doesn’t mean that America is suddenly in love with Obamacare, though. The support/oppose numbers remain in the range they’ve been in since the law was passed…” It’s what keeps DailyKos from being a standard-issue echo chamber.

4. It’s a community. The people writing on the front page are generally on staff, but there are thousands of bloggers (or “diarists” in Kos nomenclature) writing on the site and a useful system for bringing them to attention.

5. It’s funny. Often the humor is biting, and it frequently is more negative and personal than I’m comfortable with. But it’s also frequently damn funny.

You can find as much to not like at DailyKos as you want. With all those diarists, there’s no shortage of bad ideas and nasty edges. And the staff writers give plenty of materials to critics. So? DailyKos is one good model for tribal news.

But…

Of course I’d say that. People in echo chambers always think their echo chambers are Halls of Truth. That’s what it means to be in an echo chamber. So, is DailyKos any better than, say, Fox News?

I think so. But, again, that’s #1 and trending at ThingsPeopleInEchoChambers Say.com.

I’d point to a few reasons DailyKos is (a) a better echo chamber than Fox, (b) is not an echo chamber, (c) is a good echo chamber, (d) something else.

1. DailyKos seems to me to be more willing to point to negatives in its own positive news — it’s got more respect for reality.

2. DailyKos seems to me to be more often right at the level at which facts are checked. It also has not been caught as often at Photoshopping (taking “Photoshopping” literally and metaphorically). There have been times when I think DailyKos has taken candidates’ remarks out of context — I still think Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend” may have meant to point to the consequences for real people when corporations fail. But I haven’t seen (or haven’t recognized) the massive and I believe Fox’s knowing editing of quotes to get them to sound like people are saying something entirely different (“You didn’t build that”).

3. DailyKos seems to me not to spend as much time on paranoid theories. There is nothing that I know of that DailyKos has pursued that sinks to the level of birtherism, or that is pursued with as much single-minded intensity as “You didn’t build that.”

4. DailyKos is genuinely committed to building a community in which all have a voice. Yes, not everyone has an equal voice, but the upvoting mechanism and the ability to follow favorites helps people further down the long tail.

5. DailyKos does not pretend to be non-partisan as the news part of Fox News does. Of course, no one is fooled by Fox’s protestations.

I may be falling prey to the Echo Chamber Fallacy — the belief that my echo chamber isn’t really an echo chamber — but even if I am, there’s no reason to think that all echo chambers are equally bad. And there is, I believe, reason to think that an echo chamber can in fact be a useful way of getting information…and of forming a movement that can then act on that information.

 


I sent the link to this post to Markos, and he replied in part:

I often see people accuse me of “preaching to the choir”. My response is if that’s so bad, why do churches exist?

People want that tribal experience. So Daily Kos is like a church for the progressive movement — a place where people come to get informed, get validated, find community, and get organized so they can evangelize outside its walls.

Not to mention, anyone who thinks that Daily Kos is an echo chamber didn’t see the site in 2010, when we spent months preparing our readers for the electoral catastrophe that would inevitably hit in November. We were the exact opposite of Republicans this year.

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November 9, 2012

[2b2k] What do we learn from our failure to believe the polls?

There’s lots being written about why the Republicans were so wrong in their expectations about this week’s election. They had the same data as the rest of us, yet they apparently deeply believed they were going to win. I think it’s a fascinating question. But I want to put it to different use.

The left-wing subtext about the Republican leadership’s failure to interpret the data is that it’s comeuppance for their failure to believe in science or facts. But that almost surely is a misreading. The Republicans thought they had factual grounds for disbelieving the polls. The polls, they thought, were bad data that over-counted Democrats. The Republicans thus applied an unskewing algorithm in order to correct them. Thus, the Republicans weren’t pooh-poohing the importance of facts. They were being good scientists, cleaning up the data. Now, of course their assumptions about the skewing of the data were wrong, and there simply has to be an element of wish-fulfillment (and thus reality denial) in their belief that the polls were skewed. But, their arguments were based on what they thought was a fact about a problem with the data. They were being data-based. They just did a crappy job of it.

So what do we conclude? First, I think it’s important to recognize that it wasn’t just the Republicans who looked the data in the face and drew entirely wrong conclusions. Over and over the mainstream media told us that this race was close, that it was a toss-up. But it wasn’t. Yes, the popular vote was close, although not as close as we’d been led to believe. But the outcome of the race wasn’t a toss-up, wasn’t 50-50, wasn’t close. Obama won the race decisively and not very long after the last mainland polls closed…just as the data said he would. Not only was Nate Silver right, his record, his methodology, and the transparency of his methodology were good reasons for thinking he would be right. Yet, the mainstream media looked at the data and came to the wrong conclusion. It seems likely that they did so because they didn’t want to look like they were shilling for Obama and because they wanted to keep us attached to the TV for the sake of their ratings and ad revenues.

I think the media’s failure to draw the right and true conclusions from the data is a better example of a non-factual dodge around inconvenient truths than is the Republicans’ swerve.

Put the two failures together, and I think this is an example of the the inability of facts and data to drive us to agreement. Our temptation might be to look at both of these as fixable aberrations. I think a more sober assessment, however, should lead us to conclude that some significant portion of us is always going to find a way to be misled by facts and data. As a matter of empirical fact, data does not drive agreement, or at least doesn’t drive it sufficiently strongly that by itself it settles issues. For one reason or another, some responsible adults are going to get it wrong.

This doesn’t mean we should give up. It certainly doesn’t lead to a relativist conclusion. It instead leads to an acceptance of the fact that we are never going to agree, even when the data is good, plentiful, and right in front of our eyes. And, yeah, that’s more than a little scary.

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November 7, 2012

1.5 minutes of First Family beautifulness

Go ahead an give yourself a little treat. Here’s 1.5 minutes of the First Family last night.

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Morning after hodge of podge-thoughts

1a. I know there are serious and real differences among us. Some can be argued, and some cannot. If you are as depressed and sad this morning as I would have been had the night gone differently, then I hope over the next four years you’ll choose to advance both your goals and our country by working together. Obstructionism does not stop the clock.

1b. DailyKos this morning reminds us of Molly Ivins’ words:

First rule: No gloating. Actually, there is gloating allowed, but only in the exclusive presence of other Democrats

Of course, the blogger, Bill from Portland, can’t resist adding: “Since I’m, indeed, exclusively among Democrats here, I’ve got three gloaty words about our landslide victory last night: ‘We Built That!’” [Yes, "landslide" is not the right word.]

2.DailyKos runs this chart, based on CNN exit polls:

We aging white guys are still in charge when it comes to most big businesses and government functions. But we are no longer in charge of elections. Which means that we aging white guys are toast. And nothing could make me happier.

3. Last night, Chuck Todd on MSNBC allowed himself a moment of self-congratulations, saying something like, “A lot of people didn’t trust the polls, but it turns out that to a remarkable degree the polls were right. I’m proud of our polling efforts.”

Ok, fine. Then why did the media so consistently insist that this was going to be a squeaker? If the polls were right, then why didn’t you read them right? (Obligatory genuflection in the general direction of Nate Silver.)

4. If you voted for Romney, you won’t want to hear what I’m about to say. In fact, many of my liberal friends — my co-religionists, so to speak — will find what I’m about to say ridiculous. Nevertheless: I think Obama is the most un-flawed president in my lifetime. Not perfect, but the least deeply flawed.

I acknowledge that this is based on my assessment of his character, and such assessments are notoriously unreliable. I’ve seen this throughout my lifetime: I watch Reagan in a debate and think he’s a silly old actor that no one could take seriously, and most of the country sees a visionary patriot whose visage would look good carved into Mount Rushmore. I watch Robert Kennedy and see a deeply empathetic person, and most of the country sees a selfish opportunist. George Bush looks into the eyes of a totalitarian thug and sees a good man. Our unmediated assessments of character are unreliable and unarguable. So I offer my sense of Obama’s character without argument.

In my lifetime, I think you’d have to go back to Dwight Eisenhower to find a president with fewer debilitating character defects, but Ike was uninspiring. JFK? A bag of MadMen vices. LBJ? A close to pathological bully. Nixon? Yikes. Gerald Ford seems to have been an upstanding person, but lacked the drive and vision to be an effective president. Jimmy Carter is universally lauded as an exemplary person and ex-president, but could neither inspire nor effectively lead. Reagan’s grasp of facts and reality was (in my view!) dangerously unreliable, and his commitment to the Constitution was problematic. Bush senior is a patriot and a family man, but lacked vision. Clinton had some famous weaknesses, of which triangulation was the most troubling to me. Bush junior is 189 lbs. of daddy issues.

And there’s Obama. I’ll skip the list of adjectives, since you either already agree or will think I’m crazy. But let me just say this: We have seen Obama tackle issues that other presidents have for decades simply kicked down the road for someone else to solve. That requires patriotism, courage, a willingness to pay the price, perseverance, vision, political skills, and leadership. I’m hopeful that in the next four years we will see similar focus on issues such as immigration reform, climate change, maybe even Mideast peace. We won’t get it all, and we’ll won’t get all that we want. But I frankly thought that we’d never have a president willing to step forward to work on the issues that have scared off generations of political leaders.

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