Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wednesday, Thursday

Wednesday: ISG says US must engage diplomatically with Syria and Iran to avoid disaster in Iraq.

Thursday: Bush tells Iran and Syria what they must do to earn the privilege of saving us from disaster.

what's wrong with timetables, anyway?

We've heard over and over that setting timetables would be a big mistake, that it would show a lack of resolve, embolden our enemies, etc. In most other situations, the inability to set a timetable shows the exact opposite: either that those presenting the plan aren't committed to it, or that the problem is not, in fact, understood. To say that we can't set a timetable is to say that we don't in fact have a reliable plan, that if our enemies knew even that much about our plans, they could disrupt them. It's an admission of weakness, not of strength.

The hilarious part of this (I laugh myself to sleep thinking about it every night) is that those who argue most strenuously against timetables invoke them regularly. How often have we heard that the next six months are the key? Don't such statements invoke a deadline, a timetable if you will, for dramatic improvement?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

refreshed macs with dirty disks

Jacqui relates the amusing story of someone purchased a refreshed mac, only to find the desktop covered with porn links. She's skeptical, and I can appreciate her caution in the face of a story that reeks of urban legend.

In my case, I didn't have a desktop full of porn, but something (presumably my disk) had not been cleaned. The test drive version of Office, for example, is convinced I'm Swedish. The shell is convinced my machine is called "bench3-3", a name I never typed in.

The big problem with this isn't that you might find annoying content on your desktop (though some such content is illegal, and even if you delete it, it might show up in a forensic search), but that returning a failed computer to apple might expose confidential information to whoever eventually gets the disk. This is particularly disturbing because when a customer returns a broken system, they may not have the opportunity to clear the disks themselves.

Monday, November 20, 2006

ethics and objectivity

This bit in Joshua's post caught my eye:
What struck me about the exchange is that I had tied vapid and timid media coverage to Americans' often shocking ignorance about their own political system and said it was perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy. But while he agreed that there was a major problem with the public's political knowledge and participation, he flat-out refused to acknowledge that it had any connection to the rules by which he insisted he had to live.
That, I think, is the essential flaw at the heart of the ethic of objectivity. Ethics aren't merely standards of personal morality, they're rules that allow communities to work and flourish. They exist to support good outcomes. If the ethical code demands objectivity, prohibits those who enforce and maintain the code from caring about results (ie, Mark "I've never voted" Halperin), then the code itself becomes unmoored. Bad results get ignored because the ethicists themselves refuse to judge the outcomes; they merely observe.

This is not the norm in other spheres. Medical ethicists and legal ethicists care predominately about results and revise ethical codes when current codes fail. Judges are required to be objective, but legislatures exist to change the laws when the "objective" interpretation of the law leads to bad results. If the objective norm fails to keep the public well-informed, how can "objective" journalists respond? How can they prevent themselves from being gamed if they refuse to judge the outcomes of their actions?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

npr vs lamont and the blogosphere

Yesterday morning, NPR ran a pair of remarkable reports about the Lieberman/Lamont campaign and the DLC, in which they managed to discuss the race in Connecticut without quoting anyone who supports Lamont, and the struggle between the netroots and the DLC without quoting anyone from the netroots.

The first was a report from David Welna, who reported on Clinton's campaign for Lieberman, characterized Lamont only as a "millionaire," quoted Lieberman supporters on the air characterizing Lamont supporters as a "screaming minority," and reduced the race to a single issue: the war on Iraq. There were no quotes or comments from Lamont supporters. It's hard to believe they declined to provide comments, but the only other conclusion is that no comments were sought.

The second, blending almost seamlessly with the first, was about the "debate between the left and center of the Democratic Party." It describes how the DLC is now battling the "netwired, left-wing populists working so hard to defeat Joe Lieberman." The DLC is allowed to characterize itself and tout its accomplishments, but the characterization of the "blogosphere" and the "activist base of the party," is left to Mara Liasson herself. The closest she comes to allowing the base to speak for themselves is to quote Democratic Party official Elaine Kaymark, someone who has "worked with both the DLC and anti-war Democrats."

Perhaps NPR has finally taken the advice of those who've said that journalists should abandon their pose of neutrality and speak with their own voice rather than merely presenting the views of both sides. On the other hand, only one side of the debate was silenced. The "centrists" were given ample time to make their case, only the populist, activist, left was excluded. Lieberman's supporters were allowed to make their case. Lamont's supporters were not.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

the myth of the neutral net

While I am sympathetic to the notion that The Net Should Be Neutral, I have a hard time seeing how the recent changes present existential threats to the Net As We Know It. The Net has never been neutral. It is hard to imagine how it could be.

Let's start from the most obvious point, the connection from a server to an ISP. Half the country still connects to the internet via dial-up lines. Since these connections are not always-on, systems behind those lines are not fully part of the Net.

People get around that by subscribing to hosting services. That's great, but hosting services price by the level of service. Anyone who's tried to run a website then had it get too popular (instapounded, atriated, fark'd, slashdot'd, etc.) knows that you have to pay more to reach a wider audience.

More subtly, the Net is not an amorphous blob of bandwidth. It's a series of point-to-point connections. The route from my system to has at least 16 hops. It has 80 ms of latency. has 10 hops and 20ms latency. If I do the same test from our family website, I see 13 hops and 75ms latency to, and 11 hops and 80ms latency to I suspect high-level ISPs already compete with one another to provide the lowest latency and highest bandwidth to the broadest area. The only way to eliminate such biases would be to eliminate competition between ISPs.

In truth, it gets more complicated than that. Some sites are geographically mirrored. Some aren't. Some are cached. Some push content out through dedicated content distribution networks so that the bulk of data is close to the client. All of these approaches require more expertise and money than casual internet users are able or willing to muster, and there's almost nothing that can be done to prevent them.

So if companies start differentiating between their customers, it's not as if they're destroying a level playing field. The field has never been level and won't be until bandwidth, storage, and computing are free.

Such practices may make things marginally worse, but they may also make them marginally better. Improving service today is expensive. If backbones commoditize service priorities, they should be less expensive than the approaches described above. If they're less expensive, they'll be available to a wider range of customers. Upgrading your web hosting service could include upgraded backbone service as part of the package.

I'm not a pollyanna about this (or much else, I guess), but on my potential end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scale, I'd have to give this no more than a 1% Abu Ghraib.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

fighting for values

Barack Obama says that Senators shouldn't attempt to filibuster, but should instead convince Americans that their values are at stake, that winning elections is the right way to win these battles, not procedural rules in the Senate. Unfortunately, procedural Senate moves are all we have today. Without those moves, there is no fight, only capitulation.

How can Democrats hope to convince Americans that their values are at stake if Democrats are unwilling to fight for those values? If Alito's nomination is a grave threat to values Democrats and American hold dear, how can Democrats not fight? If Democrats don't fight, only two conclusions can be drawn: either the battle was not important or Democrats can't be trusted with an important fight.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

the alito hearings

I'm not and probably never will be a politician, and my instincts on this are probably all wrong, but while knowledgable folk like Kevin look for lines of constitutional inquiry that might have been more effective for the Democrats, I can't help wondering why no one pressed him on his insistence that he had an obligation not to answer meaningful questions. At times he refused to answer on the basis that he couldn't do so without a specific case to evaluate through the judicial process. At times he refused to answer because answering might commit him to judging in a specific way in cases likely to come before the Court.

There are a couple problems with these answers.

First, they're not consistent. If every case is distinct and can only be judged after considering the particulars, expressing opinions on general constitutional principles cannot prejudge any particular case. Until justices go through the judicial process, they presumably don't know which constitutional principles apply and to what extent. Without reference to a particular case, expressing opinions on Constitutional principles is not prejudging and does not commit the judge.

Second, as many have noted, justices express opinions all the time. It's their job. Scalia, Thomas, Sutter, et al have expressed opinions on issues likely to come before the Court many times, and will continue to do so. Alito has done so as an appelate judge. Members of the Court have expressed opinions in speeches, books, and articles. Before he was a judge, Alito expressed opinions as a government lawyer. Yet somehow, we're all supposed to accept that expressing opinions in response to the questions of the judiciary committee would compromise his judicial objectivity. I would like to have heard Alito explain why expressing opinions in public, before the people he will spend the rest of his life judging, prior to becoming a judge, was different.

It's a line of questioning that might not have been easy to deflect. He might, for example, have had a hard time asserting that he can't answer questions and asserting that he can't explain why. I would have enjoyed listening to him explain why only the public has no right to know, or trying to claim that he does not, in fact, have opinions on controversial matters of great public import. I would have enjoyed hearing him explain how the judicial process insulates his future judgements on the Supreme Court from the opinions he's expressed before, but not from opinions he expresses before a Senate committee. I would have enjoyed hearing him explain how keeping the public ignorant of a judge's deeply held views is equivalent to a judge not having deeply held views.

It might not have changed the outcome, but it would have been more edifying than what we had.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

In his column on Gore's speech, David Broder writes of assigning malfeasance to the President's decision to go to war:
It is a reach to attempt to make a crime of a policy misjudgment.
Just a policy misjudgement. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Only in politics is fundamental incompetence a reason to keep one's job. The invasion and its aftermath demonstrated a willful pattern of subordinating policy formation to ideology. The adminstration even bragged about it: "We create reality, we don't respond to it." In any other position, such an attitude would put you on the street. If you're the President, the most respected voices in journalism will write the results off as a "policy misjudgement."