Berkeley went nuts last night. Yesterday around 3PM I went to Triple Rock to start watching the returns roll in. At around 7 or so, once we realized that the geniuses at Triple Rock weren’t going to turn on the sound on their TVs, and not wanting to miss the speeches, we headed up to Haas to watch on the big screens there. On the way there we heard cheers erupt from all around the city–they had just announced Obama’s victory. We got to Haas just in time to see McCain’s concession speech and, of course, Obama’s long-awaited victory speech. Afterwards we went outside to see masses of students filling Bancroft, climbing up on traffic lights, waving flags, chanting U! S! A! (something I don’t think I’ve ever heard in Berkeley)… Every car driving down Shattuck was honking like crazy, fireworks, sparklers, and drums everywhere. A great night. I couldn’t be happier.
In honor of the last debate, a slideshow of a mural that recently went up a few blocks from my apartment:
Just finished watching the Presidential debate. There were a lot of moments I could write about, but this one particularly resonated with me:
McCain dismisses worries about the safety of nuclear power: “Senator Obama says that it has to be safe, or disposable, or something like that… look, I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it’s clean!” He goes on to praise countries like Japan and France that rely heavily on nuclear energy.
I’ve lived in Japan, and I’ve toured one of its largest nuclear plants. I was extremely impressed with what a tight operation it was. If you know anything about Japanese organizational culture, you know that it is very well suited for the kind of absolute control that successful nuclear power production requires. Yet even the Japanese have not been able to prevent frightening and dangerous nuclear accidents. I was living there in 1999 and remember being very scared about the uranium leak at the Tokaimura plant. That wasn’t first nuclear accident in Japan, either. The lists of civilian and military nuclear accidents that have occurred around the world over the past 50 years are sobering.
I support expanding nuclear power in the U.S., but I can’t dismiss its very real dangers. Beyond the risks of accidents and leaks, nuclear plants make an attractive target for terrorists. Ridiculing someone for insisting on safety is reckless and irresponsible. John McCain says we need “cool hand at the tiller” of our government. He’s right, and the cool hand we need is Barack Obama.
October 15, 2008 update: McCain’s still flogging his “nuclear safety’s for sissies” line:
With the economy in shambles after eight years of Republican policies, and people losing their homes left and right, Democratic victories in the fall elections seem like a sure thing. But the ever-resourceful Republicans have come up with a plan: find the people who have been most victimized by Republican misgovernance, and make sure they can’t vote. Brilliant. Fortunately the Obama campaign isn’t putting up with this bullshit, and has filed suit against the anti-democratic Republicans.
This should be running in prime time on every network in the country.
In an otherwise excellent op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, Elizabeth Edwards bemoans the narrative logic that organizes political campaign coverage:
Watching the campaign unfold, I saw how the press gravitated toward a narrative template for the campaign, searching out characters as if for a novel: on one side, a self-described 9/11 hero with a colorful personal life, a former senator who had played a president in the movies, a genuine war hero with a stunning wife and an intriguing temperament, and a handsome governor with a beautiful family and a high school sweetheart as his bride. And on the other side, a senator who had been first lady, a young African-American senator with an Ivy League diploma, a Hispanic governor with a self-deprecating sense of humor and even a former senator from the South standing loyally beside his ill wife. Issues that could make a difference in the lives of Americans didn’t fit into the narrative template and, therefore, took a back seat to these superficialities.
I understand her frustration, but I am skeptical that rejecting narrative templates is a desirable, or even a possible solution. People construct their understanding of the world through narratives, not chains of logical argument. Even in domains where the latter predominate, like science, there is usually a move to the narrative mode when discussing the larger implications of one’s argument. So the idea that we’re going to somehow replace our narrative templates with something else seems like a non-starter. Better to focus on how our repetoire of narrative templates might be expanded, and how groups outside centers of power might sucessfully disseminate narratives that communicate their ideas.
Frontline is currently running a four-part series called News War: An Investigation into the Future of News, and they’re putting it all online as it airs. Part I (the only part that has aired so far) was fantastic, and I was happy to be able to see it in high-quality video with no stuttering. The accompanying site looks pretty, and is fairly easy to navigate, but the way the accompanying material presented is a wasted opportunity. The web content for Part I consists of some extra interview transcripts, an FAQ on the freedom of the press, some supplementary documents, and a really great curated set of links. All of these are of interest, but after watching the (gripping) documentary, going through this material feels a little like homework. Why not present this material at the appropriate times as I’m watching the video, so that I can not only go deeper or get some more context for what I’m seeing, but that I can make the decision to do so at the moment of seeing, instead of relying on my recall of what I finished seeing? It might be objected that doing so would interrupt the flow of the video, but the video is already split into segments. The relevant material for each segment could be presented after a segment, and linked to the appropriate shots from that segment to allow easy navigation back to what was just seen.
OK, enough about the architecture of the News War site. What about the Future of News? I’m going to withhold detailed commentary until I’ve seen the whole series, but Part I did a good job of explaining a facet of the Valerie Plame case that I didn’t understand all that well: how it represents the overturning of 30 years of de facto recognition of journalists’ right to not reveal the identity of confidential sources. Though this right was explicitly ruled not to exist by the Supreme Court, activist lawyers had succeeded in persuading states to adopt an interpretation of this ruling which did weakly recognize this right, and journalists were rarely subpoenaed. That has changed in the wake of the Plame case, since Richard Posner, and then a circuit court, stated that the activist interpretation was unsupported by the law.
I’m looking forward to the rest of the series, particularly Part III, which will look at “citizen journalism” and new media news. But I suspect that Frontline will drop the ball by looking to elites like Eric Schmidt for insights into this stuff. Schmidt basically shrugs his shoulders and says (I am paraphrasing here), “the Internet has determined that the power formerly concentrated in the press shall be concentrated here at the GOOG. It’s perhaps not ideal, but what can be done? We’ll try to send some traffic your way, though, ’cause hey, we have a kind of nostalgic regard for editors and all that manual processing of information stuff. Good luck with that making a living thing.” This kind of arrogant technical determinism is what keeps getting Google sued. Talking to chiefs of staff when you’re reporting on the government or the NYT is a good strategy; when you’re reporting on a loosely interconnected set of networked forums it may not be. Neither Schmidt, nor network architecture, nor Google’s algorithms will determine the future of news, and we needn’t sit back and accept the dissolution of institutions of news gathering and dissemination as inevitable.
Chris Anderson has posted an absurd piece called The Probabilistic Age in which he suggests that the reason people aren’t comfortable with Wikipedia and Google is that they are systems that operate according to the laws of probabilistic statistics, which exist on some higher plane that human minds cannot comprehend. Most of the comments on the post focus on Anderson’s incoherent claim that Wikipedia somehow operates “emergently.” (This is a claim that Jimmy Wales himself disputes, by the way.) But what really concerned me was this line:
[Google] makes connections that you or I might not, because they emerge naturally from math on a scale we can’t comprehend.
There is absolutely nothing “natural” about Google’s search results. Google’s (and Yahoo’s and Microsoft’s and everyone else’s) algorithms are designed by human scientists and engineers. These scientists and engineers make specific choices about which algorithms they will use, and which they will not. They decide how the various parts of these algorithms will be weighted. They decide how they will define fuzzy concepts like “spam” and “relevance.” Each of the decisions reflects the values and preferences of the decider, and these values are reflected in the search results we see. It isn’t “alien logic,” it is human logic, and to believe otherwise is to cede control to those who write the algorithms–something I’m frankly surprised Mr. Anderson is willing to do.
When I saw Sergey Brin speak at UC Berkeley this past fall, I was very concerned when he revealed that he himself has fallen victim to, or at least wishes to propagate, the belief that his algorithms are “natural,” saying that the link structure of the web reflected the intrinsic importance of the documents linked to. But documents have no intrinsic importance–they only have importance in the context of a particular query-maker at a particular time. Sergey’s algorithms don’t reveal some truth about what is important–they encode decisions about what should be considered important. Both Mr. Brin and Mr. Anderson need to come to grip with the fact that search engines are inherently political. If people are concerned about Google, or Yahoo, or Wikipedia, then pundits like Chris Anderson should be starting discussions about what we value and how our technologies do or don’t reflect those values, not turning off their brains and blathering on about statistics and the mind of God.
Many of you in other countries are having trouble understanding the outcome of the recent U.S. presidential election. How could Americans re-elect a president who has entangled us in a disastrous war, bankrupted the nation and alienated half the population?
What non-Americans don’t understand is that we here in the United States don’t choose our leaders on the basis of silly things like policies or facts. No, we rely on something called “moral values:” basic principles of right and wrong. For example, lying to people so you can profit off the deaths of their children is clearly the right thing to do. Poisoning the air and water of your neighbors is honorable. Abusing and sexually humiliating people shows moral backbone. Trampling on human rights is something to be admired. On the other hand, falling in love with someone of the same gender as you is abhorrently evil. Being from another country is pretty bad too.
So, you see, it’s actually pretty simple. Now do you understand?