How not to be a Generic Politician

I just got this email from my senator. Talk about Generic-Off. How pathetic. Could the Senator’s office at least go to the effort of having *different templates on different issues*?

Or even some actual information content in the email?

Like “Ms. Henry, we have noted your concern on the Iraq War, and would like to let you know that X percent of Californias agree with you. Here is Boxer’s position on the issue, and here is how she plans to vote.”

What earthly use is this to me? I’ll be damned if I can remember what I wrote a letter about, or what petition I signed, in this case. Behold!!!

Dear Ms. Henry:

Thank you for contacting my office to express your views. I believe that all citizens should become involved in the legislative process by letting their voices be heard, and I appreciate the time and effort that you took to share your thoughts with me.

One of the most important aspects of my job is keeping informed about the views of my constituents, and I welcome your comments so that I may continue to represent California to the best of my ability. Should I have the opportunity to consider legislation on this or similar issues, I will keep your views in mind.

For additional information about my activities in the U.S. Senate, please visit my website, http://boxer.senate.gov. From this site, you can access statements and press releases that I have issued about current events and pending legislation, request copies of legislation and government reports, and receive detailed information about the many services that I am privileged to provide for my constituents. You may also wish to visit http://thomas.loc.gov to track current and past legislation.

Again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with me. I appreciate hearing from you.

Barbara Boxer
United States Senator

How hard could it be to hire someone to write you some decent “issue tracking” and letter writing software to keep your constituents informed without sounding like a mealy-mouthed robot talking to another, much stupider robot?

Meanwhile you might like to be aware that watchdog.net is useful, maybe more like what I’m looking for as a constituent than a flail -n- trawl through the entire Library of Congress.

Obviously I still end up voting for Boxer no matter what, but isn’t the idea to make me *really, really, really* support the politicians in office? Maybe even donate to them, because they’re awesome?

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Halfwitted journalist thinks only rich people should blog

This Washington Post writer suggests that blogs are not only unimportant, they are actively harmful to democracy and society. Therefore, the government should make them more expensive, so that regular people can’t afford to have them.

And if that wasn’t already lunatic enough, he proposes to do it by a massive energy tax.

This is so awesome I thought for a minute it was satire. Dusty Horwitt, pissant little environmentalist, lawyer, and journalist (and Bill Clinton impersonator, on the side) thinks blogging is the death of democracy.

Apparently democracy means a few rich people talk, while everyone listens. You… yes you… have the right to shut the hell up and be a good audience. Stop blogging! You’re polluting the infosphere! You’re killing newspapers, communities, democracy, and the environment, and if you’re in the U.S., you’re forcing jobs overseas! All by creating an “information avalanche”. God knows we should all beg to go back to the days when we apparently sat around getting a political “education” from notorious anti-Semite and Hitler fan Charles Coughlin… as Horwitt suggests.

Here’s Horwitt’s argument:

1) The proliferation of blogs make it impossible to find relevant information
2) The only important information is “politics and news”
3) The Internet hurts newspapers
4) And Democracy!
5) Fragmented media outlets fragment society!
6) Personal computers, and data centers, are bad for the environment
7) Therefore, create an energy tax so regular people can’t afford to have computers, and can’t blog! That way, they’ll shut up and listen to proper sources of information and become “educated”.

So, regular people shouldn’t have access to computers. This is a new one on me. Let’s increase the digital divide, to…. empower people! and to Make America Great!

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread.

Horwitt doesn’t consider for a second that the rest of the world will still be posting, even if the U.S. makes it hard for people to have access to computers.

This is the best part,

It’s possible that over time, an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information. If Americans are finally giving up SUVs because of high oil prices, might we not eventually do the same with some information technologies that only seem to fragment our society, not unite it? A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

Horwitt seems to be an amateur comedian and songwriter. You’d think his attempts at comedy would help him write a better satire if that’s what this is supposed to be. Or is it all an elaborate hoax, an enormous troll? He’s also an “analyst” for the Environmental Working Group. Wonder how well his analysis is informing the EWG? I like this bit of their site – “How EWG Does It: Our research brings to light unsettling facts that you have a right to know.” Hmmm. You have a right to know… What the likes of Dusty Horwitt want you to know. Apparently you don’t have a right to speak.

The Washington Post just argues against Horwitt’s big point that newspapers deserve to survive at all — by having published this massive piece of bullshit. This is the legitimacy of mainstream, traditional media?

It’ll serve this dude right to be mocked on as many blogs as possible. He thinks viral information doesn’t work? Maybe a million pissed off bloggers will let him know otherwise. God, if only I could find his personal Myspace… I’m sure it’s comedy gold.

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Free Idea: Use ChaCha’s structure for disaster relief

On the drive up to Seattle a few weeks ago, Cindy and Sarah Dopp and I were playing with ChaCha and wondering how they make money. Around here we all go “What’s your business model” right away… and then snicker.

So I think I might just have figured it out. Do it for free for a bit with your VC money and show how it works. Then, sell “Enterprise ChaCha” or something like it, to a big institution. (I was looking at Indiana University‘s page about it.) You’d sell the structure and the setup, and the institution creates its own number (and password or validation system) and pools its own experts. So, sell it to Exxon or something for its corporate librarians and geologists. Or to the military, obviously. Here is the military’s answer to its perpetual search for AI. “Human assisted search”.

Anyway, this could also work for disaster relief, because it’s ideal for situations that change very rapidly. I was looking at Jon’s empty wiki and thinking, well aside from all the problems with the whole idea of that, which I won’t go into, might a Twitter feed be better? I thought of myself on the 2nd floor of the Astrodome after Katrina, gathering and putting out information that was extremely up to date, and how quickly things changed on the ground. Would I want a wiki for it? (I tried. It is hopeless without a core of people already trained to use one and to work together with one.) Maybe I wouldn’t want one. Maybe a feed would be better. Page back through the “2nd floor astrodome” Twitter feed and see what’s up. Combine many different channels of all the people at various stations in the Astrodome and you’d know who says what is true, right in the moment.

But even better — a private setup for a ChaCha-like thing. You get 100 people together to monitor and answer questions and you would have an instant backup, fit for the general of an army. Or fit for a reporter on the ground in a rough situation. I think of how I combed google news all day long for the Back to Iraq guy back in like 2003 and emailed him updates on whatever was going on or being bombed in the area near him. How much better, if he could have called a phone number like ChaCha’s, and tapped into a network of people like me. Someone would have texted him back the information he wanted within minutes. And if there were sort of a combination of Ning and ChaCha, you’d be able to set up your own information broker network and invite people to join it.

The Red Cross should be using this (okay, maybe in 20 years if they can get it together that fast). But, I offer the idea up to whatever nonprofits or disaster relief workers can use it.

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In which I feel pissy about DRM and iTunes

It’s the same old song as everyone else has already sung, but man do I ever hate the Apple DRM junk in my trunk. I mean stabbity stab stab! I bought this damned album on vinyl once for 12.99 20 years ago, and then I bought it on CD, and the cd got stolen but luckily I had taped it on audiotape, and then I couldn’t find it anywhere bcause it was out of print nad was deliriously happy I could find it and hear it again by clicking 99 cents thing on iTunes. And that was several years and several Macs ago and now the damned song doesn’t work! For fuck’s sake, how many more times do I have to buy this song before I get to archive it without a waste of the world’s resources?

I was contemplating how very broken things are in music distribution. Books too. I want to own the electronic copy for whatever I buy, and then be able to get or make a physical copy of it. To record and manipulate music so I can hear it in my car. To print it or get print on demand in some graceful way. Whatever! But having just a book doesn’t satisfy me either because I want to cut and paste and quote bits of the book, fair use style, or search the book, or index it or annotate it. Think of it this way. I am willing to do a fair amount of valuable cultural work — FOR FREE — which benefits us all. Art is a contribution to the world and all art builds on other art. We need to be able to expose the connections and references. It is not information I love best, though I do love it. It is meaning. Meaning created by context and for there to be context, people have to be able to access it.

This rant inspired by my resolve to get on line and buy all the CDs possible by Dressy Bessy. I got something by them on a mix CD, and then went and downloaded more, and now love them and feel a blinding loyalty. I would like to directly give that band the $12.99 and NOT buy a CD with packaging that I will likely ruin or lose anyway. Just make it so that somewhere, it is recorded on heaven’s unchangeable heart (i.e. the motherfucking IN-ternets) that I bought this music and have the rights to mess with it under whatever nice license they like. Then, if I lose the CD or my hard drive crashes I will still have the rights to interact with the bit of cultural product that I gave currency to.

iTunes of course does NOT do this… but has planned obsolescence, which I consider one of the evils our species has unleashed on the world.

Where is the lovely open source non profit Registry of Cultural Production and Rights… or the international agency… even as a part of a government… a beautifully organized repository?

That would be my own killer app.

Where I could register my intent to translate something, and pay the original author of it… Pay them directly. And then translate and publish. Think how beautiful this killer app of copyright would be for translation as well as books and music.

Or genetic material, or whatever.

(Somehow I am thinking as I say this, on the back burner of my mind, about OLPC (which is lovely in many ways but I have a big BUT) and Dil’s gold bangles from whichever Patrick O’Brian book that was. The same fallacy of physical objects and possessions and property, the same middle class assumption that the important things is STUFF.)

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Why I like LibraryThing

I was trying to explain tonight to Annalee why I like LibraryThing. “What’s it FOR? Is it a book recommender? Or is it data about a book?” No… no… it’s for building a picture of knowledge and of people. When I first walked into Annalee’s house, for example, my head went sideways and I muttered off into all the rooms reading the book titles. I could see evidence of interests past and present, clusters of information, and could extrapolate meta-interests or things like “here are sets of books that indicate grad school classes very similar to ones I took or browsed.” So now I know without having to ask that she has a mental foundation or familiarity with Spivak and Bhabha, Derrida, Sontag, Delouze and Guattari (“Spavin, Babble, Dada, Snotrag, Deloser and Guitar”) and that sort of cultural studies/literary/historical theory way of thinking as well as science books, tech books, monster movies, pulp, tons of good science fiction, and the same sort of 19th and 20th century sex and gender information books that I also collect.

When I was looking at Timmi Duchamp‘s books I wrote that it was like being together with her in a beautiful cathedral. The way she organized them was beautiful, but it was the combinations of ideas and the depths of certain areas of knowledge that were amazing and I felt happy and honored to understand some of that, and what it meant to my knowledge of her as a person and of her work as a writer and critic. Seeing someone’s books, if they are a very booky person, with their brain deeply intertwined with what they have read, very intertextual, then seeing their books gives you some knowledge. It’s not like any two people, reading the same set of books, have the same reactions to them. But because we’re in this post-Golden-Bookshelf age where we have no literary or cultural canon, it is reassuring and interesting to see someone’s (nongolden, or golden only to them) bookshelves. If it was important to have (and to destroy) the golden bookshelf, then it’s important for us that we’re developing ways to make each others’ bookshelf compositions transparent.

Since I have read quite a lot, and in areas I can’t expect someone else at random to have read, I get very happy when I met with people whose bookshelves intersect. Right now the person with the closest books to my books on LibraryThing happens to be one of my best friends. That was a funny feeling, like confirmation of our unusual common areas of deep knowledge. I look at the people I don’t know (and I know many of them from their blogs, mostly from LiveJournal) and figure that, the way my life is going, and with tons of social software stickly spreading around through everyone I know denser & denser, I’ll probably meet them within a year. And when I search on a few of the rare books — anthologies of Latin American poetry from 1910 — and then later am searching on some incredibly hip or trashy science fiction book published last year — Then I swoon a little bit and fall in love with that person who is in the tiny club of the two of us who like those two very different books. (We don’t just own them: we gloat over them and bothered to enter them and tag them up.)

Who has this book? Only 2 other people! I feel a new pleasure; that of snobbery and pride. I look at their tagging of that book and I learn something – and maybe go back and put my tags more in line with theirs, which might make more sense. Or I like mine better and keep them as they are. Together the three of us built something, a small consensus. Then I can look at their personal library tag clouds:

Another pleasure is in the tag clouds. I can follow a few tags of marxist feminism and find strangers, then browse their tag clouds. (Here’s my tag cloud, but that’s only about 2% of my books.) What other tags does a marxist feminist reader tend to gather? Wandering around in that information is fun and I feel like I’m learning a meta-something from it. What, I’m not sure.

I look for the people who have eclectic collections, and who have certain areas of depth of knowledge – who are geeky and expert about a few things, but then whose interests scatter interestingly. It’s not like I am dying to write them messages, I’m busy enough… but I feel less intellectually lonely because I know they exist. And again, odds are in the techno-bohemian world I’ll meet them at some point and then feel instant friendliness.

I start to feel I want to introduce certain readers and LT-ers to each other; and I see gaps that inspire me as a critic, that make me see “Wait. All these people should also have A Certain Glorious Book; they’d love it, based on what they own and tag heavily.” And then I resolve to write a review, give a book as a present, or just give a recommendation out of the blue.

It is not just social and about stalking… it is a method of creating cultural meaning.

But that is not all of it… I’ll have to return to this thought. Meta-information structures laid in place… underpinnings of possible conversations…. people seem more real to me than they ever did… strangers hold more possbilities… It is a general feeling of hope, connection, interest, pleasure, curiosity. I think that when you drink the Web 2.0 Koolaid it’s not about believing in hype – it’s a fundamental shift in how we think about each other as people with depth, with books and feelings about them, with wishes and goals and places we want to go to or that we’ve loved (as on 43places and 43things) and with social ties laid out with at least an attempt at clarity. When novels became popular, it provided an opportunity for people to think about each other as characters in novels, as protagonists even, whose thought processes could be revealed, imagined, chronicled. I think Web 2.0 and blogging and rich social information environments, which will surely develop intertwinings more complicated than we’ve imagined, are in the beginning of a shift in the way it is possible for people to think about each other. There are of course utopian and dystopian results from that shift. But lucky for me I was born in interesting times and will not be bored, ever.

LibraryThing has inspired me several times so far to get rid of books that I think are embarrassing, too embarrassing or dull to add to my public bookshelf. Do I want this on my shelf? I didn’t want it in my brain. Then… throw it out!

Just as certain people are peculiarly charming and witty on Twitter, but dull on their blogs… or vice versa… I think some people’s libraries will function like registers of complicated conversation. Registers of speech or media for speaking can result in very different output from the very same person. So as a mode of self expression, art, and culture, LibraryThing and social media let us see each other saying things we might not have said, or been able to see being said, before. They provide an extra conversational layer.

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