Too Fast for Jarvis

By , 14 August, 2008, No Comment

Today, the news cycle got faster than the blog cycle. Jeff Jarvis, who I’m convinced has an intravenus feed from his brain to his blog he posts so damn frequently, got behind the news.

At 5:58 AM this morning, he announced a new scheme for newspapers, that resource-crunched industry, to save money: get rid of your convention coverage. Nothing happens at political conventions. The platforms are released beforehand, the candidates are pre-determined and some major national TV outlet (or 2 or 3 or 4) will cover the big speeches. Will you get some local color from covering your city’s delegates? Sure. Is that news? Not so much.

Ooops.

At around 10 this morning, every news outlet was abuzz with the information that Hillary Clinton’s name will be thrown into the roll call at the Democrats’ shindig in Denver. That doesn’t change the fact that Barack is the candidate (whatever the Clinton die-hards may say), but it allows her supporters to make a lot of angry noise and allows the GOP to make the case that the Dems run a dysfunctional family picnic. In politics, any opportunity for one side to make the other side look bad IS news.

And most of the infighting will be happening on the local level between the Obama and Clinton people within individual state groups. Which means for once, local newspapers might have an edge, and a real reason to be on the convention floor.

Never Thought I’d Say This

By , 12 August, 2008, No Comment


…but Wolf Blitzer has done something right. For the record, I have no soft spot for his newscast, the Situation Room. It’s something I watch at the gym because it’s just mindless enough to keep me distracted while I run or ellipticize. But a few days ago, something Wolf said actually got me thinking.

Apparently, you can download a Situation Room screensaver on the show’s website and get a running ticker of headlines on your screen. It’s one of those inventions that makes me wonder why no one thought of it sooner. In the olden days, families ran their TVs on mute over dinner. In the ancient days, they kept the radio on low volume in the kitchen. The news was background noise. In today’s digital world, the screensaver is (silent) background noise.

Granted, it’d be better to have the global headlines from a decent news show like BBCWorld or some regional news from a local station (here in New York, that’d be NY1). Still, even a Blitzer-ticker beats those silly swimming fish or the geometric animations that come on most PCs.

Apocalypse 6: Supply and Demand

By , 10 August, 2008, No Comment

This is the 6th in a series of posts about the struggles of print journalism, the many experts who are convinced its days are numbered, and the (attempted ) innovations of news organizations trying to stay alive.

One of the common refrains among print journos these days is that since information breaks online instantly, no daily or weekly publication can be in the business of hard news gathering. Instead, they should offer analysis, perspective, a “take” on the headlines or broad trend stories that have no links to the headlines at all. That’s what an editor at a major news mag told me on Friday. Looking at sales and ad figures for American magazines, he says that the ones doing best offer a lot of opinion, a clear political stance and very little in the way of timely information. He suggests that that’s what the internet age readers want: print content that supplements but doesn’t compete with what they get online. Print publications that try too hard to be newsy will get left behind.

But just last week, one of the most active internet readers I know, tells me he wants more. not less, news from print organs like the NYTimes. Jon doesn’t read the Times opinions pages (although they are often the site’s most emailed links) because “there’s too much opinion” out there on the web already from bloggers galore. What he wants is some cold hard reporting to help ground him after a day reading diatribes from the internet’s self-made pundits.

In principle, these two arguments are the same: print organizations should fill in the gaps left behind by the internet. But given the magazine sales figures and Jon’s reading habits, it seems like neither news nor opinion represents such a supply gap.

Both information and perspective abound online, but rarely on all subjects and on the same websites. So what print organizations can do is become aggregators, partnering with and bringing together the expertise of various blogs with small additions of their own. That’s the path the Washington Post, the Guardian and Conde Nast have taken already, and it’s my prediction for the way forward.

The “New” Political Culture

By , 7 August, 2008, No Comment

I’m skeptical of Barack Obama’s “new” politics. This week, the NYTimes revealed that it’s really just a YouTube-genic version of the old politics: despite all his claims to the contrary, Obama gets his funding from big bundlers just like everyone else. I have no beef with bundlers–campaigns are expensive. But since Obama told everybody he was a $50 check kind of guy, the bundlers are a problem for him.

Meanwhile, McCain was learning a different lesson about the “new” political culture: how impossible it is to have a controlled message in this viral age. His attack ad about Obama as the greatest celebrity got big press, but not in the way he wanted:

Read More →

Coffee Makes You Smarter. Duh.

By , 6 August, 2008, No Comment


I’ve been saying it for ages, if only to justify my addiction to the bitter bean. And the Enlightenment philosophes proved the link between coffee drinking and intellectual debate a long time ago. That’s why this blog has the name it does–it’s a virtual coffeehouse. So I’m pleased, but unsurprised to learn that science has finally caught up with common sense–coffee DOES make you smarter.

Follow-Ups

By , 5 August, 2008, No Comment

An all-too-true criticism of bloggers is that we get caught up in whatever is the hot news story of the minute, but can’t follow through or stick around long enough to see the full picture. To correct that, I’m revisiting two previous posts today.

1. Way back in May, I ranted about America’s atrocious decision to rescind some Fulbright awards to Palestinians at Israel’s request. To summarize my previous argument, even if you believe that Palestine should be denied a seat at the negotiating table till it solves its internal problems, isn’t helping responsible, social-service oriented Palestinians (ex. academics) a key way to facilitate that precondition? For a few weeks after the Fulbright scandal broke, the U.S. appeared to see that logic and re-granted the grants. Today, we found out that of the 7 grants that were taken away and given back, 3 have been taken away AGAIN. For the details of the Kafka-esque legal proceedings, see the NYTimes coverage. But suffice it to say, this blog’s snapshot judgment earlier this year was sadly right.

2. Yesterday, I indulged in a little gloating at spotting some errors in a David Brooks column. Those errors still hold, but today, Brooks pretty much smacked me in the face for doubting his intelligence: his column on Barack Obama was spot-on, and as usual focused on the cultural side of politics, looking for social and cultural forces that might turn voters off him. No, that doesn’t mean racism. It means that Obama’s post-partisan, post-racial, trans-national ideology is a problem not because of the specific groups he transcends, but because he’s so determined to be transcendant. It’s okay, says Brooks, to have your feet in a few communities; that’s good. But it’s not okay when it starts to feel as though you have no community at all. Accusing Barack of being sort of antisocial has nothing to do with challenging his patriotism, his blackness or his whiteness; it has to do with the fact that humans of all political stripes are social beings.

On one point, I do disagree with the almighty DB. He makes the point that this uber-individualism Barack exhibits is something of a generational shift and alludes to the notion that the rising hyperlinked generation, whose reality is all about being in multiple places, viewing multiple tabs at once, are his core constituents. True. But even the techiest of GenYers has a community or two–no one I know is on EVERY SINGLE social network or wants to be. And no one views their various online communities with the aloof dispassion that Obama seems to have for the whole notion of belonging to a group.

Brooks is wrong, FINALLY!

By , 4 August, 2008, 1 Comment

For the last seven years (as long as I’ve been writing opinions pieces), I’ve had a grudging respect for the genius of David Brooks, referencing him in several columns and linking to him from most of the posts on this and previous blogs. That’s odd, because Brooks is a classic Burkean conservative, and I’m a pretty unabashed liberal, and most of the time I disagree with his policy proposals. What I like about Brooks is his social and cultural approach to political subjects, his explanation of elections and geostrategy through technological change or class hierarchies. He’s asking the questions I want to be asking, and even if we come up with different answers, our differences are matters of values, not a sign that one of us is more right than the other.

His most recent column, however, breaks the mold. For the first time in years, I think David Brooks is wrong and I feel like a cross between the child who finds out his parents aren’t superheroes after all and the proverbial martial arts student who defeats his master in one-on-one combat.

Brooks wrote on Friday about the rise of a multipolar world. America’s demise as THE single superpower will not usher in the rule of China, or India or Brazil or even a consortium like the EU, but the rule of nobody and everybody. To Brooks, this means we are doomed to anarchy, because any one power has the ability to cripple the international process–witness the collapse of the Doha talks and the lack of action on Darfur. He seems to think that the international process and international institutions depend upon the ability of a few (Perm5, G8 etc) players to keep everyone in line.

In fact, the opposite is true. Yes, the world has gone multipolar. Not in the sense that all powers have suddenly become equally powerless, but in the sense that different kinds of power are focused in different places. Technological power is centered on both sides of the Pacific; military power in America, China, Russia, and Israel; economic power in India, China, Brazil and if they get their act together the EU, political power in China, Russia, and the OPEC countries etc.

But instead of yielding a world in which no country can exercise whatever kind of power it’s got, the multipolar age means every country has an increased vested interest in the international process TO exercise that power. When you only control one small niche, and when that niche is part of so many global relationships (India’s economic power is all linked up with the technological power of Silicon Valley, for example), you NEED the international process to make your power valuable. The problem with our current international institutions is that their hierarchical setup isn’t suited to multipolar power dynamics. The P5 or G8 nations are unrepresentative of today’s power dynamics, but simply adding more countries (or bringing EVERYONE to the table, a la Doha) is inefficient.

Instead, imagine a United Nations with 3 or 4 possible Security Councils. Depending on the resolution up for debate, a different Council would be in session, allowing say Brazil to trump Russia if the topic is trade, but Russia to trump Brazil when the topic is disarmament. Just as individuals are dividing up their world in more niches as technology allows, so the international process can become more issue focused, allowing many powers to become the central pole of their own niche.

Deresiewicz: Halfway There

By , 3 August, 2008, No Comment

The current issue of American Scholar (aka Geek Magazine) has this fascinating essay by William Deresiewicz about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Read the whole thing if you have time on your hands, but here’s the cliff notes version.

1. elite schools breed smart people who will go on to be successful but not be able to converse with or show compassion for those less smart/successful than them, i.e. their own plumber
2. elite schools breed smart people who think intelligence is the only virtue in life
3. elite schools train smart people to think they (and their children) deserve success, i.e. grade inflation and the inherited meritocracy
4. elite schools encourage smart people to take safe paths in life, where they know they will succeed, rather than to take risks
5. elite schools are hotbeds of social conformity

I’ll dismiss the first and last points right off the bat. If Deresiewicz feels socially inept and unoriginal, I assure you that no single educational institution is to blame for making him that way. But points 2-4 struck me as dead on, faults that I myself plead guilty to sometimes and consider among my chief weaknesses.

I discussed the essay with several friends, and found that most of them hated it. Not always, however, because they thought he was wrong about the existence of grade inflation or the pressure to choose the straight and narrow career. Rather, after much long debate, my conversations with friends wound up with them saying “So what?” As in, so what if we expect success in exchange for our intelligence–don’t we deserve that?

The problem with this essay is that Deresiewicz exposed all these qualities of an elite education but didn’t really explain why they are disadvantages.

My own answer to friends is that you deserve success when you achieve it–you proved it by getting there. That’s not a particular nice or fair worldview, I realize, but societally, it’s the kind of ethic you have to have to innovate. Leaders are intelligent people who kept proving themselves even after a solid SAT score and an Ivy degree “entitled” them to sit on their laurels. If our best and brightest get complacent, this country’s leadership days are numbered. Somewhere in the midst of his overdone prose, I think that’s what Prof. Deresiewicz meant to say.

I Just Don’t Get It

By , 28 July, 2008, 5 Comments


Obamamania, that is. I’m about 90% sure I’m voting for him, because at the end of the day I’m (moderately) left of center, but I’ll be voting for him the way most liberals voted for John Kerry in 2004: with a shrug, and a total lack of emotion.

I’m trying very hard to at least comprehend what has everyone else so jazzed up, but so much pro-Obama coverage confuses me. For example, I hear that he promises some new kind of politics that is cleaner and more honest than what we’ve got now. I may not like that, but that’s something I can get my head around. But as soon as I start to process that, I see this piece in the Sunday Times about how he and McCain represent “new” politicians because they come from the Senate, which is a change from an “old” model of governors (Carter, Clinton, Bush) and generals (Eisenhower).

Wrong. If we take the longview, we’ll realize that for most of US history, senators were the most likely presidential candidates. The 20C examples of presidents with executive, not legislative, experience was the change. Electing senators is old news: Abe Lincoln was a one-term Congressman, and from Illinois too. The contradictions go further–the article opens with a long lede about Lyndon Johnson and the kind of bargain politics he mastered as a senator, then used to pass a ton of legislation as President. But Johnson’s bargain politics was manifestly un-clean: it was the backroom dealing and verbal arm twisting of a DC insider. I kind of like Johnson, even if I think his policies were flawed, BECAUSE of that willingness to be forceful. The analogy might fit McCain, but using a HISTORICAL comparison to say Obama is a new politician, however, is just mind-boggling.

Then there’s the contradictions in the coverage of his recent international tour. Arguably, Obama’s biggest strength is that electing him would be a great PR move for America. That seems to be the gist of this blog post from Kevin Xu at Brown’s Watson Institute. But then, in the same post, titled “Obamamania around the world” Kevin reminds us that Obama has no foreign policy experience, so he should focus on the economy in this campaign. With all due respect to Kevin, who’s a good friend of mine, “Huh?”

That’s my biggest problem with Barack: not simply that it’s still unclear to me why I should vote for him, but that no one in his campaign or among his supporters is trying to bring his vision into focus. To ask for focus is an insult, a sign that I’m just an old fogey (keep in mind, I’m 21.) Instead, I’m asked to believe, to feel, to vote for some intangible inspiration–Kevin says Obama’s best foreign policy asset is that he “cares about people’s feelings.”

“Change we can believe in” just doesn’t get my political juices running, because I’ve never seen politics as an act of faith. If I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be seeing in the tea leaves, I have no way to evaluate if it’s there or not. Can anyone decipher?

Good Girls Don’t Blog

By , 27 July, 2008, No Comment

The blogosphere is all abuzz because of an article in the New York Times about a conference of female bloggers called BlogHer. The article looks at the conference as a sign of a glass ceiling in the blog world where women tend to blog as a hobby, while a lot of men have been able to make their blogs a full time, and highly lucrative, job. Maybe, the piece muses, that’s because women don’t want to be blogger-executives. Or maybe it’s because they can’t get venture capitalists and advertisers to support them.

The feminist blogs are up in arms that the article confirms stereotypes of women. Because the piece focuses on blogs about fashion and family, it implicitly suggests that women don’t blog about anything else. And because it’s in the SundayStyles section, it confirms that women bloggers aren’t real entrepreneurs, who would get profiled in the Business section. Simply by devoting two pages to discussing gender difference, some of these bloggers say, the article has helped to create them.

The piece has a lot of problems, but they would certainly not be solved by treating BlogHer as an ordinary business conference and ignoring the presence of gender altogether. Rather, instead of simply stating that women blog differently or get less funding, the reporter–Kara Jesella–needed to spend more time probing those inequities. This article should have been longer on cultural criticism and shorter on fluffy prose. By spending several paragraphs, for example, on the atmosphere inside a ladies’ restroom, Jesella leaves no room for analysis.

She drops bombs like “women are taught not to be aggressive and analytical in the way that the political blogosphere demands, and are more likely to receive blog comments on how they look, rather than what they say,” then doesn’t explain her point. The feminist blogs had a field day with this statement, because it seems as though Jesella is endorsing this image of women as non-confrontational and appearance-conscious.

What she could have, should have, added was that even though women bloggers aren’t passive airheads, enough media moguls think of them this way that they might have a hard time raising money. Big advertisers might be confident of the success of an angry man’s blog (think of Arrington, Jarvis, or Drudge) and fearful of an opinionated woman. The article really wasn’t about who female bloggers are, but the struggles they face as a result of the way they are perceived. It strikes me as an attempt to expose sexism that falls flat because it’s badly written, not (as the bloggers contend) because its author (a woman, by the way) is a sexist herself.

The whole point of the BlogHer conference is for women to network with one another to get around these kinds of impasses by DISCUSSING gender issues. To somehow cover the conference without talking about the difference between male and female bloggers is just naive, and hardly a productive feminist approach.