Monday, June 30, 2008

Losing the Argument: Why the Democratic party is probably doomed

Elections are not simply about the raw numbers or even the shifting of legislatures. They often represent the public's perception of right and wrong - a national discourse on where the country is headed and whether it should stay on that path. The elections of 2006 was a victory more about the excesses of the former Congress rather than the arguments for the current one. A good portion of the public felt betrayed by the selling of the war-turned-occupation in Iraq, by rampant mismanagement of federal institutions (FEMA being the poster child), and of the corruption and fraudulence of the individual legislators. I would submit there was not a kind of national argument made by the Democrats that framed the election beyond. It was basically: we don't like these guys and we want someone else to do something different. This is the opposite of the other blow-out election of recent history, the Republican takeover of the legislature in the mid 90s. Here, there was a concerted argument made for a reorientation of the path the nation was taking. It didn't make this argument by itself, but was the result of deep resentment by both social and fiscal conservatives for more than a decade driven by not just one or two wedge issues but a complete ideology. And the Republicans didn't simply take these issues individuals, but as a total and (relatively) coherent vision. The evidence this represented a general shift to the right is not difficult to find. The same has not happened in 2006. There was no Contract With America, no grand vision. Or if there was, it has been utterly decimated by triangulated, tactical voting with no thought to a long term strategy. By voting record, there is very little to distinguish the Congress of 2006 from their predecessor on the topics that were at the forefront of the election: the war in Iraq, civil liberties, agency competence, and accountability of the Bush Administration. Nothing at all truly significant was done on these fronts. And the Democrats in 1994 were in a much more powerful position with a popular president (who regardless largely conformed to the ideology of the opposition). Large scale ideological movements are an extremely powerful force in history: the liberal revolutions of the 18th and early 19th centuries which created this country and profoundly changed others, the rise of Facism and Communism in the early 20th century, and at a national level, the rise of the modern American conservative movement. These powerful forces are founded on intellectual arguments that were extremely compelling in their own time and place - some continue to be so and others have been refuted with horrible loss of life and human dignity, but it would unwise to doubt their power. Democrats have not made an intellectual argument on this vein and their majority will be ephemeral if they do not. Their activities on basic issues that were provided as the reasoning to vote for them - checking executive power, the war, securing civil liberties, were not really pursued, much less some larger ideological goal. It has become simply the party of everyone who isn't a Republican for whatever reason. When the excesses and unpopularity of the current batch of Republicans is forgotten, they will still have an argument. Even a poor ideology trumps none at all. They could fix this by coming together and deciding why they are against the things the Republicans are for and visa-versa. Right now it is a mishmash which suggests they could change their tune at the drop of a hat (and judging by their voting records, they will). Republicans can rightly attack them as having no core principles or values because as a party they don't seem to. Don't believe me? Try a Google search of "democratic party mission statement". The whole first page is either local party offices with statements that mean nothing (the Maricopa County party's mission is just to get elected; okay guys, what then?). The actual party website is not much better, nothing in their "What we stand for" page is an argument - never is it explained why they believe what they do and what that means for policy. The RNC website is no better, but their ideological argument was really made here. The original contract is actually kind of interesting to read because the parts about government transparency are so completely counter to the current party's actions when it last had the majority it is quite stunning.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Political spam emails and computer safety.

"Fwd: FWD: Fwd: fwd: OBAMA TO DISARN THE MILITARY!" reads one of those mass spam political emails. Surely everyone has somehow received one of these at some point. No doubt they are extremely popular because they confirm already established assumptions about a candidate. The internet has a wonderful way of justifying any opinion or claim because all human beings are characterized by some measure of credulity. The body of the email contained a link to a video in which Obama was said to have laid out this particular stance. Long have the creators of malicious code used gripping headlines to pull unsuspecting individuals on to suspicious websites. The Storm Worm is a classic example that persists to this day, creating an army of zombie computers ready to attack anyone or anything for hire. The email that is the subject of this post linked back to a throwaway Wordpress site and was originally sent by an email address consisting of what appeared to be part of an MD5 hash. Besides involving Nigerian banks, there isn't much more an email can do to find itself on the radar of a moderately aware user. Before trashing it, I alerted everyone it was sent to it might be dangerous. The final humor of this scenario is the the person who sent this to me is still miffed I suggested it was a possible attack site. I had assumed they were already compromised and it was automatically being sent to everyone in their contacts list. It hadn't occurred to me it might just be stupid rather than a security concern. Better safe than sorry though - I recommend the new and extremely popular Firefox 3 web browser with Adblock Plus and the NoScript addons. (As an aside: the funny part is I would be really happy if this particular email was true. The United States spends more on its military than the entire rest of the world combined. I'm reminded of the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, possibly the last competent person with some measure of integrity to hold the office of President:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
This was no pacifist. He was Supreme Allied commander in the European theater and served with distinction before then. He'd never be elected today with these views, and anyone trying to claim we face a greater threat today than the Soviet empire at the end of the 50s is either fooling themselves or needs to pick up a history book.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

HeyWhat'sThat: The coolest mapping site you've never heard of

What happens when someone has too much free time, programming talent, and a burning question? This.

Summary: HeyWhatsThat is basically a rather advanced map hack site which includes viewsheds linked with government/public name systems (names with xy data) so from a given point you can see all the major peaks nearby. The proprietor and designer, Michael Kosowsky, has steadily been adding stuff to it and it now includes pathing (which gives you an elevation profile), and a night view.

I'm moderately curious why Google hasn't bought him out/hired him/stolen the idea. As far as I can tell, Kosowsky built all the tools (minus the Google Map of course) from the ground up. It includes some interesting little quirks based on his response to user comments, like the way it handles the curvature of the earth and the fact it switches to metric if outside the United States.

(To be completely fair, you might have heard about this site. Several other bloggers, including Ogle Earth, have wrote about it.)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The viable solution to internet piracy

The sad fact of the matter is piracy as it is currently defined cannot be stopped without enormous breaches of privacy. Absent the restriction of tools to even create programs that can effortlessly defeat protection methods, you can't stop people from copying digital information. Mostly because the mere act of being on the internet means you are required to copy things just to view/listen to them. This is a sample of some of the points of a paper I recently read at Cato called The Future of Copyright. My personal favorite part:

When American troops liberated the city of Luxembourg in 1944, they made a strange capture: a machine capable of recording sound on magnetic tapes. Shortly after the war, this German military invention made its appearance in private homes. Tape recorders integrated listening and reproduction in one device, but as separate functions. That’s no longer the case with digital technology. Today, to use digital information is to copy it.

Computers operate by copying. They couldn’t care less whether the physical distance between original and copy is measured in micrometers or in miles; both work equally well for them. Copyright law, on the other hand, must somehow draw a line between use and distribution. That means putting an imaginary grid over the chaotic myriad of network nodes, delineating clusters of devices that can be attributed to individuals or households.

Every person reading this article is actually copying it illegally. You can't help but do it. As you surf the internet your computer is constantly caching (saving locally) data that you are viewing. Anyone who has ever used the internet for anything is almost certainly a pirate. I'll let you all off with a warning this time. Humor aside, the problem is one that the music industry found itself in a long while ago with the invention and mass adoption of radio. John Philip Sousa was convinced anything but live shows would completely destroy music. The solution, after much complaining, was to just license the distributor. Now of course the distributor and consumer and creator is anyone and everyone on the internet. The compromise is an idea that is not new and is even talked about by both sides of the issue with increasing interest: mass public electronic media licensing. If everyone on the internet is a pirate, license everyone. Everyone who wants to buy in at least. You've solved 99% of your piracy problems by facing the reality of a system, the internet, that requires copying. You also don't even have to host the files themselves, users are more than willing to do so. The idea has merit but the problem is the pie to be divided. We need an organization as trusted as the Nielsen statistics are for downloaded media content to correctly award creators and their labels/studios/whatever. The only alternatives are to entire restrict piracy with the kind of locking down that would destroy the internet and privacy in general (people could still just rip stuff from friends/renters) OR to see an attempt to destroy internet and privacy while the major content holders die a slow and painful (for everyone involved) death at the hands of unrelenting technological innovation. Edit: Hahaha. Bonus quote from a Guardian article linked from the Cato piece:
"For somebody who has spent 30 years in the music industry, you instinctively know this stuff is going on. But when you actually sit looking at your computer and see a number that says 95% of people are copying music at home, you suddenly go, 'Bloody hell'," he said.
Turns out you could nuke the internet from orbit and the current copyright model is doomed. Note: Copying this work is no longer actually illegal in any sense, since I have licensed everything with Creative Commons.