Practical Internet Politics: Understanding Block and Blame, Catch and Release

I loved reading Jon Udell’s post on net-enhanced democracy. Back in 2006, when I started to do what Jon did so wonderfully in his essay, the hope was exactly this — that some generally less political individuals would take these tools and do what poli-bloggers were doing — dig out the backstory and deflate the press coverage on very specific issues.

And while Jon is in no way your average person, the fact he was able to get his specific answer on pellet stoves outside of any political support network is pretty amazing.

But as I sit here today reading Jon’s essay on how Sununu used his vote on cloture to gut clean energy initiatives from the Foreclosure Prevention Act of 2008 Energy Independence and Security Act [thx, Jon!], I can’t help but think of the bill that was put in limbo by a cloture vote today, a bill that would have doubled heating aid to low income families this winter.

The Democrats tried to schedule that heating aid bill for a vote, and the Republicans stopped them.

Reading Jon’s essay caused me to think about the reasons I haven’t looked up how Sununu voted on this newer motion — because ultimately it doesn’t matter what his vote was. The truth is what your individual Senator does on bills matters quite a lot less than you think.

Let me explain why.

The reason why the heating aid bill (S. 3186) did not pass a cloture vote is because the Republicans have been trying to get an offshore drilling provision in a passable bill for a while now, and the mechanism they have used to do this is to filibuster any bill the Democrats see as must-pass, and have the leadership make a deal: we’ll stop our filibuster if you pass our offshore drillling agenda.

The current focus of this effort is a bill on the floor right now: S.3268. This bill was originally about limiting market speculation in oil futures, a policy most Americans support (and most Senators support). However, the GOP has decided to filibuster bringing this bill to a vote unless it includes provisions that lift offshore drilling bans.

Today the Democrats tried to table this speculation bill which has been in filibuster limbo for days now so that they could move onto a widely supported heating aid bill. In an effort to up the stakes, the Republicans effectively filibustered a motion to bring the heating aid bill to the floor. (Some people may be confused by my use of the word filibuster here, but filibustering does not require speeches anymore — under Senate Rule 22, it simply requires requesting a cloture vote to end debate then defeating that motion. This is, for all intents and purposes, a filibuster.)

So they’ve kept the heating aid bill off the floor, despite the fact that as we speak families are scrambling to figure out how they are going to heat their homes and want to see firm action from the government. And the GOP has done this as a way to increase their chances of getting offshore drilling passed.

Now why would they engage in such a game of chicken?

The idea is this — the public sees the Senate as controlled by Democrats — if the Democrats can’t get the heating aid passed, the Republicans can point to the fact the Democrats are a “do-nothing” Congress that cant get anything passed.

On the other hand, if they are successful in getting the offshore drilling provision into something, they’ve managed to force major legislation through the Congress using only the 41 votes it takes to filibuster. And even if they are not successful at this, they get to keep the debate about offshore drilling, which they think will play well in certain key states.

This strategy, paired with a media that loves the “Democrats in disarray” meme, has allowed the Republicans to stop major legislation in the Senate at levels that are historically unprecedented. Here’s a comparison of cloture votes over the last 30 or so years:

[This graphic above is from here, but the best history on this is from McClatchy, which continues its tradition of being the only news agency doing its job. We are currently at 127 cloture votes with 5 months left in the session.]

Notice the outlier? This is not a story you’ll hear in the media. But it is impossible to understand any vote in the Senate without understanding this strategy.

Which brings me back to today’s heating aid bill. The Republicans need 41 votes to hold this bill hostage to offshore drilling concerns — or more specifically, they need to make sure there are not 60 votes for cloture (cloture requires 3/5 of the Senate to vote Yea, not 3/5 of present Senators).

So what’s the strategy here? It’s called Catch and Release. The Republican leadership gets all the votes it needs — 41 people to vote Nay or not show up. Then it hands out passes — they let certain vulnerable Senators up for reelection vote for the bill (or in this case, possibly Senators from the oil-heated Northeast.). Those passes could theroretically be up to 8 in this session, but it’s usually somewhat less.

As long as they don’t cut it *too* close they can block the bill and burnish a couple “maverick” crendentials.

So did Sununu get a “catch and release” or not? Did our other Senator, Senator Gregg get one?

Internet tools can tell you that — but what they can’t tell you is that in this case it doesn’t matter, that what matters in this case is an overall party strategy which has been used to rule from the minority in a historicaly unprecendented way. And that the money here that matters most is not neccesarily the donations of the industries to the individual campaigns (though, believe me, that matters), but quite possibly the general slush of party senatorial campaign money.

Given that — what is the best approach to building our emerging digital democracy?

I think it’s maybe what we see here. I’m an optimist ultimately — Jon’s discovery regarding where his wood pellet tax credit went *is* significant in the way it personalized the issue — the specificity of that really brings the issue home. And it’s significant in that it showed the media narrative around the issue to be what it is — a farce.

Those are big and important things. But I think it’s also significant in that Jon’s post prompted me to post this explanation here, on my personal blog, rather than the progressive venues I’d normally post it to. As more people delve into these tools, the conversation around how our process really works can occur. And hopefully it can start to occur in channels outside the poliwonkablogosphere that I love so much but that others, well, not so much.

The first reaction to tools in the hands of novices is always that the novices don’t have the proper context. But use those tools and the context will come to you. Whether you asked for it or not.

Update: I broke down and checked THOMAS. John Sununu, our Senator who is up for re-election this fall, voted for cloture. Judd Gregg, who is up in 2010, did not.


My new job with the OpenCourseWare Consortium

I’m excited beyond words to annouce that starting August 25th I will be working for the OpenCourseWare Consortium as their first Director of Community Outreach. Or at least we think that’s the title of the position. This is the job that appeared in OLDaily some time ago as a marketing job.

For me, there’s a great bit of serendipty in getting this postion. I started my career in e-learning more than a decade ago, and one of my first projects, back in 1997, was what we’d now term an OER project. In 1999, I convinced my employer to make pre-literacy sofware available free on the internet and we put up some of the first flash-based educational games (if you have younger kids, check the link out, it’s still pretty cool stuff). I became enamored with the net-enabled learning-by-doing approach of Cognitive Arts, and was lucky enough to be a senior engineer on the Columbia University Online project 2000-2002.

I’ve kept up with the issues in net-enabled education, but in more recent years my professional and personal life has been more centered in community organizing and publicity, both in movement politics and for my college. And I’ve enjoyed that, a lot. I’m frankly probably a better community organizer and media guy than I ever was a programmer (although I do miss the long diet coke filled nights where it’s just you, your tunes, and 108 lines of python that need to ship by morning).

I had been looking to get back into the net-enabled learning space more fully, and had made some steps towards that at my own institution, but then this job appeared — which is essentially community organizing and movement politics (sort of) for the educational issues I care about.

How cool is that? I honestly looked at the ad, and understood for the first time that the two phases of my career didn’t have to be separate.

Am I gushing here? Yeah, I guess. I can’t help it.

I’ll say more about this when I start, but couldn’t resist putting up something now. And if you’re a reader of this blog and want to tell me what *you* think the OCW movement should be doing, don’t hesitate to email me at caulfield dot mike at gmail dot com. No matter what we decide to call this position, outreach is a whole bunch of what it’s about, and ultimately that means more listening than talking.


Practical Art and Stallman, revisited

I started to type this as a response to the gracious comment Ismael left me on the Stallman post, but it quickly got big, so I am putting it here:

Ismael writes:

The rationale behind my quote of his about art (not actually a literal quote, but actually faithful to what he said) was that:
– if we’re talking about content/works/software that are needed, as tools, to reach other goals, they should be free
– art did not fall in the previous category
– art, as a subjective expression of one’s ideas/feelings, should not be changed by any means (e.g. Richard M. Stallman would not allow any derivative works of his writings not to go out of context, or find he’s being attributed things he did not actually said ;)

First I want to thank Ismael for taking both the initial time to transcribe this lecture of Stallman, and to clarify it. (And I agree with him that from the point of view of most people, the medical patents statement is the most interesting — just not my area)

So to the point —

I think the “practical=tool” clarification helps, but ultimately does not rescue Stallman’s argument. To me, at least, it embraces a Romantic and Early Modern view of art. And it’s a view I’ve found quite interesting — I have always thought, for example, that Jakobson’s “Poetic Function”, which defines art as essentially as a message that turns in on itself — that is, as a message that does not direct itself toward externalities — that analysis is one of the genius moments in 20th century intellectual history. I read the lines “the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination”, his definition of the Poetic, and I’m still stunned at how many threads of modern thought come together in that beautifully simple but stunningly creative insight.

So I’m more than interested in attempts to define Art and aesthetic thinking as something in space apart from the prectical and directed. And tellingly, the other name for the Jakobson’s Poetic function it the “autotelic” — that which is an end in itself — and this jives nicely with Stallman’s distinction. That’s not coincidental, since Stallman and Jakobson are pulling from the same Art for Art’s Sake influences, but it’s significant.

Yet even in 1961, Jakobson saw this as a *function* — that is, there is no such thing as poetry in a sense — there’s a poetic element in everything. And the things we call poetry and art are traditionally things which are constructed to highlight the relation of the message to itself. But while the function has clear abstract boundaries, the artifacts that function illuminates do not. And we now have about 40 years of post-structuralist theory showing us that is indeed the case.

So back to the point — to the average person, I suppose, art is not a tool — because they enjoy it as readers. They revel in the autotelic. But to the artist, new art is always demonstrating ways to solve their own artistic problems. It’s no different in some ways than physical invention. Camera obscura, a tool, had a profound effect on Rennaisance Art — but so did Giotto’s realism. To the artist, and even to the astute viewer, art is always a set of tools, characters, plot devices and the like that they can rip out and use.

And of course it does not stop there. Fan fiction is a good example, but we don’t have to go twentieth century on this…here’s DaVinci’s Last Supper:

And here’s Giampetrino’s from some years later:

What was an output of Da Vinci’s artistic process becomes an input into Giampetrino’s own. It’s not the world’s most original work, but as long as correct attribution is made, why shouldn’t Giampetrino use Da Vinci’s work to develop his own style?

Similarly, many of my wife’s friends use photos taken by someone else to make paintings from. To the photographer, the photograph may be meant to be autotelic, but to the painter who uses it, it is another tool in completing their own ends. Likewise, the painting one creates from the photograph could end up as a piece of website layout, or the background of a WordPress theme.

There’s a solution to this, but Stallman can’t use it. The solution is to say that the photographer gets to decide whether his photographs are meant to be tools for graphic designers and artists (in which case he gives up his freedom) or art (in which case he preserves his rights).

But that rests the division in the intentionality of the producer, not in any attribute of the object. And if we vest that distinction in intentionality, we might as well all go home — to say that the producer should determine how his own work should be used is to say that the concept of Free Software is dead. I choose to see my code as my personal self-expression, therefore you can’t copy it.

That’s where we were *before* Stallman’s innovative movement, and I have no intention of going back.

I don’t mean to minimize the massive problems in Art here, with everything from compensation to attribution. It’s not an easy subject — it’s far more difficult than coming to terms with whether printer drivers should be free and open. And I’m guessing that’s why Stallman wants to wall it off from his more core concerns.


Why Fan Fiction proves Richard Stallman wrong

When I saw this summary of part of Stallman’s talk in Barcelona, it irked me:

When a work embodies practical knowledge you’re going to use for your life, it should be free and it should be free to be modified. It’s not the case of art. Art should be shareable, but not modifiable.

Caveats: this is a summary of what Stallman said by an audience member, not a direct quote.

But as stated, the distinction doesn’t hold water.

I’d have to do an entire blog post series to enumerate the many ways such a distinction is untenable, but here’s a quick example:

Say I find a book that tells me how to use a spreadsheet to better compute inventory, and as a small business owner, I modify that document and publish pieces of it into my employee handbook. That’s practical, I guess, and therefore free. Why should I have to rewrite something that’s already been written? Better to build on the work already done, and move things forward from there.

And I suppose the spreadsheet information should be still free to me even if my business does something “impractical” like publish novels. By bettter managing inventory, we can bring better art to the public more cheaply, and it would be wrong (morally wrong in Stallman’s world) to set up policy to prevent that.

Here’s another way to bring better art more cheaply to the public though — a fan fiction approach. As a publisher of books, if I could publish the best fan fiction for say, Doctor Who, then from the point of view of my publishing house, that’s incredibly practical. Making Doctor Who and its related characters “free” would unleash a ton of untapped creativity, and like the best open source sofware, would allow people with a talent in one area (plots and dialogue) to put their effort into a larger frame they couldn’t create by themselves (characters, backstory, world creation) but can certainly extend.

Now, can someone show me how a concept of “practicality” clarifies this situation, making the rights in the first situation fall toward society whereas in the second situation they fall towards the author?

I’m not saying, incidentally, that all art should be absolutely “open”, or that fan fiction should be freely publishable by for-profit publishers. I really don’t know how to make sense of the new world of copyright (though I would start by making no copyright last longer than 20 years — which would give you access to seven of the ten Doctors anyway — and I would vigorously protect all non-commerical distribution of fan fiction).

I am saying that Stallman’s take on Art, if the quote is accurate, is strangely static — and seems to not acknowledge that art builds on past work in ways that are not unfamiliar to software engineers. There may be a way to separate software from hip-hop, fan fiction, and that Christian company that clips all the bad bits out of movies — but I haven’t seen it yet.

I agree that we have to start thinking of the ways in which Art is different from software and recipes. Only the most committed monist would deny that. But like most issues in Art, picking this apart is bound to be a messy endeavor no matter what, and my guess is “practicality” is the wrong string to start pulling on.

(h/t OLDaily for pointing me to the summary)


Sakai, Blackboard, and the Bridge to Nowhere

If you want to understand why the word-that-must-not-be-named spread like wildfire, you need only read the Inside Higher Ed article on Blackboard “partnering with Syracuse University to develop a way to integrate Blackboard with Sakai.”

Jim has a nice post on Blackboard’s co-option of “openness” in their statements on this project. As for me, I continue to find it amusing that quotes from Blackboard leadership almost always follow the term “learning” with the term “login”. In the quote in the current press release, “login” appears almost eight words after “learning”, making for a couple tense moments:

“Students should not have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments for different classes,” said Michael L. Chasen, Blackboard’s president and CEO, in a prepared statement. “With a single login users should have access to all of their courses and course material. There should be one place they can go to get all of their course information.”

Did you catch that?

learning (0) environments (1) for (2) different (3) classes (4), With (5) a (6) single (7) login

Blackboard as an access control company anyone?

God save the single login. No matter what it costs!

But I think I differ with Jim in what I feel the most interesting part of this whole deal is. I don’t feel that there is any real danger of Blackboard co-opting the term “open”. In fact, in the current press release the line:

With Project NG, Blackboard is working to create a more open, flexible platform that allows educators to better personalize, customize and integrate their educational ecosystem.

reads to me more like white noise than anything else. It’s a bit of exquisite corpse poetry, apparently composed in the interstices of an edtech conference.

And the rest of the release? I just can’t work up a steam about it, because the whole thing is too darn amusing. I mean, how open is your system if the two owners of the systems have to “partner” to get the systems integrated?

And the line:

“Students should not have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments for different classes…”

Hilarious. The point is not whether “Students shouldn’t have to worry about whether different technology is powering their online learning environments.” The point is I shouldn’t have to care what Blackboard thinks is a “legitimate” worry to get stuff out of their system. What I decide to worry about is really none of their business.

It’s the difference between engagement and openness. Engagement is admirable, but it is essentially interacting with the world on terms that you define.

Openness is letting the world interact with you on terms the world defines.

That difference is crucial, and should not be forgotten. As engagement with the broader community, this effort is not a bad thing. But it has absolutely nothing to do with openness.


Offlining site now online

I’ve created a new site that bascially aggregates the offlining posts from this site: Offline Thinking. The idea is to eventually get others to post on it as well via tag based syndication.

The design of the site is stripped-down WordPress template — the theme is meant to be ASCII-friendly in case you want to download it to your Sony Reader or Kindle. All the headings are marked with surrounding characters, and there’s a minimum of layout junk to get caught in your select operation. I’m working on ASCII-friendly blockquoting as well.

Anyway, check it out, and let mr know what you all think.


Blowhardization hits the Windy City

So last month we had an embarrassment of riches with intelligent articles on the perils of multitasking and the online rabbit hole.

This month, please welcome blowhardization, the inevitable second round of the public multitasking debate where bloviators are given extra time on the mike, and the more intelligent voices are gonged off stage.

Exhibit A: the recent Chicago Tribune article: “So how dumb are we?“. After drifting over Carr’s excellent essay, and giving a nod to another book, the writer decides to spend nine of her twenty paragraphs on this guy:

The question is hotly debated in academic circles, where Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein further turned up the temperature with his recent book, “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.” Its subtitle: “Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.”

Who’s Bauerlein? He’s the English professor that formerly made a name for himself criticizing how “liberal” our college campuses were:

Academics may quibble over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but on campuses, conservative opinion doesn’t qualify as respectable inquiry. You won’t often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas and writings on the right.

His influence in the Tribune article extends well beyond the eight paragraphs that quote him. In fact the Tribune author’s lede:

NEW YORK—Who hasn’t snickered at “Jaywalking,” a “Tonight Show” segment in which host Jay Leno flummoxes unsuspecting young people on the street with such tricky questions as: In what country is Paris located?

is strangely similar to the first lines of Bauerlein’s book:

Everybody likes the “Jaywalking” segment on The Tonight Show. With mike in hand and camera ready, host Jay Leno leaves the studio and hits the sidewalks of L.A., grabbing pedestrians for a quick test of their factual knowledge.

So it’s not a surprise when Bauerlein shows up six paragraphs later to answer all the hard questions that less stellar lights such as Nick Carr have posed. This may look like a newspaper article, but in reality it’s a genre that astute readers are familiar with — it’s a book promotion piece plus extras. It’s not a book review — nothing in the article actually examines the premises of Bauerlein’s work in any systemic way. It’s an article written based on book, fueled by a promotional push.

Nick Carr doesn’t have a book out, or at any rate one on this subject that will sell, so he’s a footnote.

So if you ask why blowhardization always has to happen, there’s why. Because Bauerlein, Keen, and others write books that make people feel good about what they never learned, and argue their points without any disturbing ambiguity. That sells books, which generates press, and by the time this game of telephone ends people receive a debate that has all the nuance of an Andy Rooney rant.

I’m fully prepared to believe that Google may be making us stupid. But they are still remain rank amateurs compared to the press.


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