November 5th, 2012 § § permalink
Have you heard the candidates mention your state during the debates? How about the entire time during the campaign? Nope. Me neither.
Now of course I’m in the lowly state of Alabama with only 9 electoral votes, but chances are most Americans live in a state that simply doesn’t matter to either of these campaigns: CA, NY, WA, OR, TN, TX, OK, IL, GA…
How can you run for President of the United States of America and only have to convince a handful of states that you should be the next President of all the states?
…the actual share of voters nationally who are up for grabs is probably between just 3 percent and 5 percent in this election, polling experts say. The Obama and Romney campaigns are expected to spend on the order of $2 billion, in part to try to sway this tiny share of the electorate.
This NY Times piece goes onto describe how the campaigns are only targeting small groups of voters within counties of swing states:
A senior Romney aide, who requested anonymity discussing strategy, says the campaign’s microtargeting has identified specific swing-voter-rich counties in swing states: In Virginia, for example, a large number of swing voters are concentrated in Fairfax County, just outside the District of Columbia; in Ohio, by contrast, undecided or persuadable voters are scattered throughout the state. In some cases, demographic patterns emerge: In Arapahoe County, Colo., just outside Denver, the majority of swing voters will probably be women, the aide said.
These winner-take-all, divisions reinforce all the terrible tactics we’ve seen from both campaigns. In this digital age of advanced micro-targeting and micro-messaging the campaigns don’t need a broad message to lead the entire country, and they definitely don’t need to bother convincing anyone from across the aisle.
Supporters of the current Electoral College system argue a direct popular vote would unfairly favor big cities over rural areas, but isn’t the tyranny of Ohio worse! The candidates should be forced to appeal to as broad a group in the electorate as possible, by campaigning and appealing to all 50 states.
By building a national consensus around issues we can move past the simple answers we keep hearing on the campaign trail. One example from my state is the renaissance of car manufacturing going on here in the south. Mercedes-Benz continues to expand their plant here in Tuscaloosa. VW built a new plant in Chattanooga, TN. BMW has a plant in South Carolina. Hyundai is building cars in Montgomery, AL. Stop telling me how amazing the auto-bailout was for Detroit! That’s not the only place cars are made in America!
This pandering to swing states leads to simplistic answers at best and outright terrible policy at worst. Newt Gingerich’s overt pandering during the republican primary is the strongest case for why the system is flawed. Ethanol for Iowa. Dredge the Charleston for South Carolina. Space funding and a moon base for Florida. Basically, take money from all the other states whose votes don’t matter in the primary and give it to key states through federal spending. Thankfully, Newt lost in the primary.
The Big Picture
My biggest complaint throughout this campaign, compared to the 2008 campaign, is the lack of a big picture of what the candidates want to accomplish. Give us a meta-narrative! Tell us a story of why your vision, your party, deserves my vote.
In 2008, Obama’s slogans were hope and change, but he also painted a broad message of how we’re better together, than divided. From that belief sprang the healthcare law the administration spent much of their political capital on. The process of passing the law was less than ideal, but the goal of insurance for all was not a surprise based on the goals stated in the campaign.
That’s just one example from 2008, but tell me what the broad message is this time?
Obama: We’re getting better, because I helped stop the crisis. Everything is going to be ok. I killed Osama.
Romney: I’m a businessman. Did I mention I’m a businessman. I want to cut taxes to create more jobs.
With such a broad and diverse culture we need ideals and goals that unite all 300+ million of us instead of pandering to tiny percentages through divisive micro-messaging. After all this time of campaigning and billions of dollars spent, neither candidate has addressed most of the pressing issues that we face in the next 4 years:
How will you resolve the housing crisis?
What will you do about the unprecedented consolidation of Wall Street banks?
What will you do to reform immigration?
What can be done to address the meteoric cost increases in higher education?
What about the continued rise of costs in healthcare?
What can America as a nation do to remain competitive on the global market?
How can we fix the skills gap that continues to leave 20 million Americans unemployed?
Will we continue a foreign policy of bombing and killing our way to peace?
What will you do about the continued detainment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay?
How will you form any sort of consensus in Congress to start working again?
Call me naive for thinking census matters, then you can call me cynical for believing 95% of the votes cast tomorrow won’t matter.
October 8th, 2012 § § permalink
Watching the presidential debate last week, reminded me how inefficient verbal debate is for comparing and supporting ideas with facts. Why does it seem like we’re still watching debates from the 1850′s instead of the 21st century? Why are we judging the future leader of America by their rhetorical skills, when most of the problems they face will be far more complex? The key quality both candidates continue to support is the role of the president as a wise technocrat - someone who can manage budgets, and make a myriad of decisions based on the best available information.
Nixon Kennedy debate 1960
Romney Obama debate 2012
Has the format of the debates substantially changed since 1858? No. The candidates have shorter periods of time to respond (the debates in 1858 lasted up to 4 hours), but the only real modern update is that they’re broadcast. Even now the only real difference between listening on the radio or watching the debate on TV, is seeing the non-verbal communication like body language, but the presentation of facts or sources remains purely verbal.
Where else in modern America do we expect to be persuaded by verbal arguments alone? Even pastors use church bulletins with sermon notes or big screens to structure their speeches. It’s a basic improvement, but when I argue through problems with other people I try to use a whiteboard to draw out more of what the key the differences are.
We Have the Technology
Technology has made huge advances since the first debates in 1858 and even the 1960′s. President Obama uses an iPad on a daily basis to read the news. Why can’t we use something like an iPad for the candidates to interact with facts as they debate, compared to the empty verbal tricks we get now?
Give the candidates and the moderator an agreed upon set of common tools and figures. If the topic of the debate is the economy and the federal budget, let each candidate show how they would change it. For example, they could use this great graphic from the Congressional Budget Office and use a touchscreen (like the Microsoft Surface CNN loves to use) to show how they would change the share of spending if elected:
Limit the options so that the focus is still on the debate and not on the technology. They could use a whiteboard (or chalkboard) for all I care. My point is, by adding some form of visual communication as the candidates debate the budget, they can show back and forth what elements they would cut or expand.
Cite Your Sources
Require the campaigns to live tweet the sources cited during the debate so everyone can read more and verify the accuracy of each claim. The teams prep the candidates with facts to cite throughout the debate, why not post those live to Twitter as they talk about them or in a full wrap up at the end of the debate? As it stands now we’re left to sort through 3rd party sources 0r the biased spin of the campaigns.
If you failed to show your work like this in English class you would fail! How can you run for president without backing up the claims you make to the nation? You know they’re gathering the sources now, just show your work!
July 3rd, 2012 § § permalink
Official 2005 photo of Chief Justice John G. Roberts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My attempt here is not to add more commentary to the Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”), but instead to point out the gems within the majority opinion.
No matter which side of the issue you fall on, every educated citizen can easily follow the reasoning used to decide it.
The Framers created a Federal Government of limited powers, and assigned to this Court the duty of enforcing those limits. The Court does so today. But the Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act. Under the Constitution, that judgment is reserved to the people. ~ Chief Justice Roberts page 65*
* All page numbers reference the page number of the PDF not the pages printed in the document.
America is a nation of laws and the Chief Justice deferred to the legislation created and signed by the other two branches of the Federal Government. In his own words:
Members of this Court are vested with the authority to interpret the law; we possess neither the expertise nor the prerogative to make policy judgments. Those decisions are entrusted to our Nation’s elected leaders, who can be thrown out of office if the people disagree with them. It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices. ~ Chief Justice Roberts page 12
This is exactly the deference of power Republicans have been screaming about for years! “Activist judges writing laws from the bench.” Well Justice Roberts deferred to the better judgement and intentions of the elected legislators no matter how foolish the law may be. That is not for the Court to decide.
Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness. ~ Chief Justice Roberts page 50
Justice Roberts goes to great lengths to explain why the individual mandate can not be enforced through the commerce clause, which for many conservatives should be a relief.
Congress already enjoys vast power to regulate much of what we do. Accepting the Government’s theory [to use the Commerce Clause] would give Congress the same license to regulate what we do not do, fundamentally changing the relation between the citizen and the Federal Government. ~ Chief Justice Roberts page 29
Instead of yammer on about how Justice Roberts ruled on the case though, you can read it directly in his beautifully penned 59 page opinion. And that is the real heart of my post – why let bumbling fools filter the news down to you in small understandable spoonfuls when the source material is so rich and freely available?
The next 126 days will be filled with more hot air and screaming about this topic than anyone could wish for. Why not go to the source and mute the power of the fools who incorrectly translate such a key decision?
The power of our country is not in the ruling class or the media industry translating the news down to us. Through open and immediate access online I read through the 59 pages of text in the time that most reporters were finishing their first articles. The only form of genuine protest I know against the ignorance spewed on Fox News is not by watching MSNBC or any other news source – it’s by better informing myself with the true source of information. Many articles and videos now include links to the source material. The reporters role is still meaningful in providing summaries to more issues than I have time to investigate, but for major issues such as this Supreme Court ruling why read 10 articles when I can read 59 pages from one of the sharpest minds in the country?
The writers of all this commentary get paid to fill pages with words or TV airtime with words. Justice Roberts cogently laid out his reasoning for future generations of judges and everyday Americans to understand how such a crucial decision can be made without defaulting to partisan answers. Conservatives are flabbergasted that Chief Justice Roberts would “turn to the dark side,” ruling in favor of ObamaCare, but that’s really a terrible summary of what happened here. Read the source material! Vast portions include quotes from the Framers and their efforts to create a pragmatic country governed by clear laws.
As we have explained, “the framers of the Constitution were not mere visionaries, toying with speculations or theories, but practical men, dealing with the facts of political life as they understood them, putting into form the government they were creating, and prescribing in language clear and intelligible the powers that government was to take.” ~ Chief Justice Roberts quoting from historic rulings on page 30
Ultimately, if America elects a massive majority of Democrats to the House, almost a super majority to the Senate, and a Democrat to the White House then the American people have spoken. For the high court to overturn the law on the basis of partisan views would be the greatest betrayal to the people who, however mislead or foolish you might think they are, worked to pass healthcare reform.
If you have a better plan go forth and elect your own fools.
May 14th, 2012 § § permalink
“The ability to collect, store, and manage data is increasing quickly, but our ability to understand it remains constant.” ~ Ben Fry – Computational Information Design – http://benfry.com/phd/
We’re great at reading, gathering, searching, and finding new and interesting ideas. With search engines now almost anything on the internet can be found using the right keywords. The problem now is not finding information, but sorting and relating it to other information we already know. We start doing this sorting and categorizing at a young age – this is a dog, it’s an animal; this is a cat, it’s also an animal. Slowly over time the number of categories and items we understand expands through learning – Kampala is the capital of Uganda, which is a country in Africa, which is one of 7 continents. These layers can become quite complex and deep. As I learn more about Uganda I store it away in my mind with other information about the country or maybe even relating it to some of its neighboring countries.
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
Once we have a basic framework, we start to hang new information around what we already know. However, without an understanding of the big picture new information can seem meaningless. For example, in my economics class we jumped straight into utility theory formulas without discussing the broader context of how and why we need to analyze individuals utility preferences.
After looking at these graphs long enough I started to build an understanding on my own, but only through repeated rote exercises – copying the board directly from the professor. If instead we could slowly zoom further in to each level of detail, the foundation for each idea would be much firmer. The best example of this idea of zooming if of course Powers of 10 by Ray & Charles Eames:
Why don’t we have a massive Powers of 10-esque way of presenting knowledge? We have Wikipedia, but right now we can only see one page at a time. The average person can’t aggregate data into any sort of meaningful visual form.
LEARNING AS EXPLORATION
Once a beginner sees the big picture – micro vs macro economics – its time to zoom into those groups for more information. Prezi presentations are the most popular way to visually represent this movement. Concepts only become visible once we zoom down through the larger items.
These broad sweeps of information should not be limited to something that only the professor does as part of a presentation. By visually representing the data so students can explore and relate interesting ideas on their own, learning can become exploratory and interesting again.
Imagine a zoomable Prezi for any topic you want to learn that has detailed layers that allow you to skim the broad concepts or learn all the way down to ongoing research.
The problem with Prezi’s is that the proportions and layers are all built individually by the presenter. We need a new system that allows the data to persist between Prezi’s, for this web to expand through the efforts of everyone just like Wikipedia is built by the masses instead of one author.
Microsoft’s ChronoZoom research project is one of the best examples I’ve seen of trying to give the broadest sense of context with an ability to zoom in to what interests you. ChronoZoom is part of the broader field of Big History – best summarized by David Christian at TED – which tries to place human history within the context of the full history of the universe. Imagine learning history in school with this massive level of context that’s fully zoomable.
NOT JUST PRETTY; COMPUTABLE
I keep talking about representing the ideas or data visually but the key here is that the web of information isn’t just a static mindmap that’s used once; instead by defining the relationships between items we can sort, pivot, rotate, filter, and re-organize the data in ways that answer questions. These sorts of questions are the ones I hope to answer and illustrate in future postings.