Sunday, May 28, 2006

CA Court: Bloggers = Journalists

More welcome news from legal authorities out in California: Santa Clara Superior Court decided on Friday to grant the protections of California's reporter shield law, enshrined in its constitution, to bloggers and online magazine publishers and to "decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes 'legitimate journalis[m].'" At issue was the propriety of civil subpoenas sought by Apple Computer against two online news sites which had published secret documentation revealing the company's plans to release a new digital recording device. The court overturned a lower trial court's rejection of the petitioners' motion to prevent Apple from forcing them to turn over all emails and other relevant information related to the leak. The public interest, federal and state constitutional prerogatives, legal precedent, and California's Stored Communications Act together outweighed Apple's corporate interests in using the legal system as a crowbar to get at the bloggers' personal files, the court held. Further, anyone "publishing" news and information on a semi-regular basis ought to be afforded the same legal protections as journalists, as the judge could find no reliable grounds upon which to deny online publishers such protection.

From Eugene Volokh, who offers more informed commentary.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Good News for Net Neutrality Fans

The House Judiciary Committee just voted 20-13 in favor of a bill that would mandate the principles of net neutrality for broadband network owners. Bad news for Verizon, Time Warner, Bellsouth, Comcast, and hardware companies; good news for the software business, content providers, and average Netizens.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Bush-Bashing Before It Was Cool

Apparently the Fixx composed the definitive anti-Bush anthem . . . way back in 1983. Go back and read the lyrics to "One Thing Leads To Another;" the interpretation fits uncannily well. From

More on the D of I

Man oh man, was that last post ever convoluted. My train of thought completely derailed, leaving a twisted morass of semi-cogent criticisms that did little to flatter my position. But I’ve got a couple more thoughts on the definition of insanity that somehow managed to escape, so I’ll present them in a (I hope) much more organized, approachable, and concise fashion.

As I explained yesterday, defining insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” necessarily implies that expecting the same results from consistent action is reasonable. But the set of activities that counts as “doing the same thing” is left up to the reader’s judgment. While most would presumably agree that the set should include voting for the same person, it is less obvious whether a partisan voting pattern is comparable, especially since parties are well known for changing their platforms over time. Also, should the generic act of propositioning women count as “the same thing” in the same way that repeatedly propositioning the same woman would? This lack of denotative clarity severely undercuts the quote’s force as a general maxim in addition to tempting its advocates to use it only when convenient to their arguments.

Even if we narrow our view to only those cases that are more or less unanimously agreed-upon as “doing the same thing,” we’d still find that our Franklinism grossly overestimates the power of human agency in most real-world endeavors. To see why this is so, let’s have a look at voting for the same person, the example Michelle Malkin presents. A vote for Ray Nagin is insanity, she claims, unless you want the same results as last time. But Ms. Malkin fails to acknowledge the great number of factors that must be taken into account when assessing a city’s political and social outcomes, of which a mayor’s “competence” is only one (defining competence as a context-independent trait is another major error). These would include (but are certainly not limited to) public opinion, other legislative bodies such as the city council, the robustness of the tax base, and the tractability of the city’s problems, which combined may in the end prove more decisive than any one man’s political abilities. Rather than arguing why a specific alternative candidate would do better by New Orleans than Nagin, Malkin appeals to a well-known but poorly supported piece of “conventional wisdom” to glibly glorify change for change’s sake. Serious situations deserve serious analyses, but unfortunately the blogosphere tends to reward snark over substance.

EDIT—If I had to distill my objection to this bothersome phrase down to two sentences, I'd do so thusly: Any decision over whether to maintain strategy or adopt a new approach to a given problem should remain open until the pros and cons of the status quo have been thoroughly examined against the inherent value of and transition costs to whatever alternatives are on the table. Asserting that "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" is "insanity" preemptively closes all such questions to debate in an inappropriately sweeping fashion.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Ben Franklin's "Definition of Insanity"

Benjamin Franklin's well-worn aphorism defining insanity as "doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results" is a common crutch for uninspired hacks who find themselves in need of a pithy way of expressing the idea that repeating a particular act is futile. Aside from the obvious offense of it being a cliché, Franklin's sage wisdom also happens to collapse under the most cursory of analyses. To wit: if committing the same action repeatedly and expecting something different to happen is insane, it stands to reason that committing the same action repeatedly and expecting the same result would be, if not the precise definition of sanity, at least by implication a sensible assumption. Yet this is not the case enough of the time to generalize the claim aphoristically. While propositioning an attractive young lady 20 times with the same sleazy pickup line might earn me 20 increasingly painful slaps to the face, many a petulant child has discovered the successful strategy of mercilessly importuning her parents for a popular toy until they finally relent and buy it. And a man who finds himself walking across a rickety rope-bridge may be able to get away with a certain number of stomps upon one of the looser planks, but I doubt he'd be foolhardy enough to try to determine that number himself.

Part of the problem is that Franklin's assertion, blunt and unqualified as it is, fails to take account of the fact that consistent success isn't crucial in every situation. Some cases, such as predicting the weather, strongly favor the highest degree of accuracy possible, while undertakings like soliciting for a date or searching for a job have rather higher fault tolerances. In these situations, "trying one's best" may produce the same results as wildly shifting strategies from instance to instance: denial of the job opportunity or rejection by the desired other. For these tasks, sticking with a consistent methodology offers the advantage of the practice effect: increasing competency with repeated application of properly directed effort.

Indeed, Franklin's little maxim calls into question the very value of practice itself. If we were to take it as presented by its adherents, i.e. as general life advice, the inability to reproduce "Stairway to Heaven" accurately on one's first attempt at playing guitar should be taken as admonition against ever trying again. But reality belies such an interpretation: as Levitt and Dubner colorfully illustrate in a recent column for the NYT, consistent, targeted practice is frequently a more significant factor in success than natural ability. So it's obvious that the Franklin quote is thunderously inapplicable to at least one major subcategory of repetitive activity.

Probability is another fundamental influence the quote ignores. I suppose the behavior of a gambling addict caught in the thrall of a one-armed bandit might be considered "insanity", but it would be unduly harsh to say the same of Western courtship norms, which are characteristically fraught with disappointment for most males. Franklin's diehards might object that hitting on many different women in the hope of scoring a date doesn't really count as "doing the same thing" since the targets are different. But the world changes every single second, which means that every time a person "does the same thing," he does so under circumstances that might just be different enough from the last time for his action to achieve the desired effect this time. This is the essence of chance: even if each iteration individually offers low odds for success, the aggregate probability of at least one successful outcome grows the more frequently the game is played.

The obvious question raised by the above analysis is: under what set(s) of recurring circumstances, if any, would Franklin's advice most consistently apply? It's possible that there's something about the world of politics that makes it especially relevant there, but given the objections detailed above, such a claim would require particularly robust substantiation. The authors of the two exhibits linked to above are both warning their readers that electing the same leaders over and over again and expecting different results isn't very smart. This may sound like sensible counsel, but I'd argue that there's little if any correlation between party-line/pro-incumbent voting tendencies and stable policy outcomes. GOP partisans who've been registered since the 60s have voted for, among other party planks: segregation/states' rights, foreign diplomacy and extrication from an unpopular war (under Nixon); keeping government spending low and foreign policy detente (under Reagan); multilateralism in Gulf War I and the "NWO" (under Bush I); isolationism (the GOP-controlled Congress throughout the '90s); and foreign policy unilateralism, neoconservatism, and expanded federal power (under Bush II). Clearly, sticking to the same voting strategy is no guarantee of consistent results in politics, especially over the long term.

None of the above should be taken to insinuate that applying a single method exclusively to a given problem is inherently virtuous. But since Franklin and his quoters seem hellbent on fetishizing technique alternation (only occasionally considering whether the suggested alternative is actually a good idea), I thought it important to debunk this annoying platitude thoroughly (okay, I had a discursive itch to scratch, and it felt great!). If nothing else, it illustrates the difficulties that arise when an axiom is formulated too strongly: doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting different results may sometimes be inadvisable, but it is hardly the "definition of insanity."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Hip Hop and Racial Insularity

Slate writer John Cook recently took up the racialist implications of hating on hip-hop in a piece about a popular indie singer-songwriter’s music tastes. The headline telegraphs the author’s intentions a bit too overtly: the headline “Is Stephin Merritt a racist because he doesn’t like hip-hop?” couldn’t run over anything but an apologia. The article responds to Village Voice music critic Sasha Frere-Jones’ allegations of racism against Merritt, who among other things has professed much love for "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" from Song of the South and proclaimed modern hip-hop “boring” and as “racist” as minstrelsy. He has also publicly criticized such artists as Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Outkast, which drove Frere-Jones to accuse him of aesthetic euro-masculo-normativity. Cook spends most of his time patiently rebutting Frere-Jones, who exhibits the characteristic shrillness of an overserious music aficionado that (mis)interprets differences of taste as personal attacks.

As it turns out, the racial politics of rap music is an issue very close to my heart, and I must admit to a viewpoint very similar to Merritt’s, although there is a great deal of hip-hop I do enjoy. Perhaps my blackness “permits” me to discuss such opinions publicly without having to suffer opprobria from the likes of white critics like Frere-Jones. But then again, to the extent that hip-hop defines and circumscribes the habitus of the black American male aged 18-35, I do experience friction—but normally only within intra-racial contexts. So while Merritt takes heat for his suspected racism, I deal with a crisis of inauthenticity that comes from inhabiting a cultural gray area of my own construction. Some blacks assume that my rejection of those aspects of the hip-hop lifestyle I disagree with amounts to a rejection of black identity in toto.

I like some underground hip-hop, but I can’t stand the violence, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism of most mainstream rap. A lot of the music is great, but I can rarely tolerate the lyrics for very long, especially when I know that young black males across the nation are going out and imitating the behavior they see and hear on TV and radio. Moreover, I’ve (thankfully) never had to experience the inner-city hardships that comprise the bulk of hip-hop’s lyrical grist, and I never felt the need to pretend otherwise. I’d rather listen to music that reflects more complex sensibilities, such as the allusive stylings of MF Doom, the confrontational acidity of the Beauty Pill or TV on the Radio, or maybe even a few non-black artists now and again. But because there are very few (that I know of) culturally safe opportunities for black males to bond en masse over activities outside of sports and hip-hop, I frequently find myself on the margins of my demographic.

I know I’m not the only black dude out there that feels this way. I’ve met black males my age that reject certain aspects of hip-hop culture just as I do, but I’ve not yet had occasion to discuss with any of them the implications of our lifestyle choices. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the dominant memes in black youth culture, but the absence of widely acknowledged alternative ways of being makes life outside the hip-hop bubble difficult. Our culture is in dire need of expansion. Its youth need to understand and believe that they won’t be ostracized by their entire peer group for listening to rock or signing up for Quiz Bowl or rejecting preconceived notions of “keeping it real.” I think Akrobatik put it best in his underground single “Balance,” on the lack thereof in the hip-hop game: "there's no balance in rap/you either a nerd or a thug/you either got too many big words or bust too many slugs."

What I’m advocating is quite simple, really: a massive shift toward cosmopolitan tolerance in black culture. So how do we counteract centuries of internal and external pressures toward a limited and insular definition of blackness? Well, striking the slur “Oreo” from our vocabulary might be a good start. But more fundamental change could be sown by exposing our children to a wide range of perspectives and possibilities, thus inculcating within them tolerance and pluralism as fundamental values. You know what I’m talking about: take them to museums, cultural events, ethnic restaurants—teach them about Black and African history but make sure they understand how our unique past fits into the larger tapestry of human experience.

At a time when young black males are withdrawing in escalating numbers from society at large, it is our responsibility to let them know that intelligence, global connectedness, and Blackness are not mutually exclusive. Kanye West hits the mark particularly well in the remix of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone in which he discusses the evils of the diamond trade (unfortunately, Jay-Z neutralizes West’s bold sentiment with a typical verse boasting about the longevity of his musical empire). We need more of this type of thing on TV, the radio, and movie screens, which means we need to support positive black media role models with our dollars to show the media producers that a broadened conception of black culture is worth investing in.

Most of what I’ve discussed is only meant to apply to families that aren’t struggling to make ends meet; obviously those that are have bigger problems than what’s on the radio. But those of us who find ourselves economically free to effect cultural change have an obligation to help make it happen. Anyone who cares about the well-being of the black community should at a minimum lead by example, and if possible take affirmative steps to extend the boundaries of the black collective unconscious. I know I’d feel much more comfortable listening to mainstream hip-hop if its influence was counterbalanced by a few viable alternatives.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The News Ecosystem Continues to Distill Itself

Stanford University policomm professor Shanto Iyengar and Washington Post polling director Richard Morin recently released the interesting though not entirely counterintuitive results of an online experiment designed to suss out whether political party identification exerts any effect on subjects' choice of news outlet. The answer, in brief, is a qualified "yes"—when people were presented with four hard-news headlines labeled "NPR," "CNN," "BBC," and "Fox News" and asked which they'd most like to read, self-identified Republicans and conservatives exhibited a marked pro-Fox bias. Democrats' preferences were split between NPR and CNN, an effect which may be explained by those stations' lack of perceived liberal bias among Dems, according to the authors. And thus journalistic "objectivity" slowly proceeds down the path of obsolescence toward eventual rout by the ascendant regime of opinion journalism.

In other Fox News news, the findings of a new content analysis by two economists suggest that the right-leaning network may have persuaded up to 8% of its audience to vote Republican between 1996 and 2004. I don't know how they managed to separate "the Fox News effect" from all the other factors that might have influenced the shift, but if further research bears out their explanation, I wouldn't be surprised if we begin seeing propaganda channels from other provinces of the political spectrum springing up to apply Murdoch's upstart prototype to their own political ends.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Where's the Trust?

Can't say I'm surprised . . . Reuters reports on the results of a newly released Globescan survey showing that two-thirds of the American and British publicks distrust the news media to deliver balanced perspectives on the news. The article notes that these findings are outliers among the 10 countries polled, most of which were found to trust their national medias by much higher margins. One curious fact left off the wire report is that both Britain and America trust their governments more than their news outlets, which strikes me as rather odd given that federal contempt is as American as immigrant-bashing. The people are clearly not pleased with their mainstream news coverage . . . but what, if anything, can be done?

About a month ago, Michael Kinsley wrote a column advocating "opinion journalism" as a cure to the American media's increasingly unpopular (not to mention futile) objectivity fetish. He lifts up England's news ecosystem as a paragon of prickly, unabashedly biased political communication, but the British results reveal a public as dissatisfied with their media as we are with ours. Then again, a Likert poll item like "The media reports all sides of a story" means two very different things in the US and the UK—we're judging a media system whose members all pledge allegiance to official neutrality, while Brits swim in a far more varied sea of political perspectives, which one might think would offer greater balance overall. The fact that it apparently doesn't may be bad news for American news producers, because it suggests that not even a shift to opinion journalism would solve our media's credibility issues. But it's entirely possible that England simply lacks perspective—I'd wager a steady diet of American news would give your average Brit a newfound appreciation of subjectivity's subtle charms.