Waiting for Superman

I recently saw the movie “Waiting for Superman” – yes I am late to the party. But in case you have not seen it let me recommend it to you as a highly revealing and disappointing view into the way the American school system runs, stuck in a system that feels so wrong in so many ways. Watch it. And visit the Waiting For Superman Web Site.

Here is the IMdb info for Waiting for Superman. Here is the Netflix link for the DVD.

“The Real Housewives of Wall Street”

Mike Taibi writes in Rolling Stone about some fairly outrageous doings between Washington D.C. and Wall Street during the various ‘bailouts‘:

“Christy is the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley. Susan is the widow of Peter Karches, a close friend of the Macks who served as president of Morgan Stanley’s investment-banking division. Neither woman appears to have any serious history in business, apart from a few philanthropic experiences. Yet the Federal Reserve handed them both low-interest loans of nearly a quarter of a billion dollars through a complicated bailout program that virtually guaranteed them millions in risk-free income.” (from The Real Housewives of Wall Street)

Sudafed and Voting

A theme that I have followed in this blog is the question of whether it’s a good idea to require a picture ID of some kind before permitting a citizen to vote. In another article in the New York Times called “Republican Legislators Push to TIghten Voting Rules”, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina had this quote:

“If you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed, if you have to show a picture ID to get on an airplane, you should show a picture ID when you vote,”

Which is pretty convincing comment, on the face of it, isn’t it? Except:

  1. Voting is far more important than buying a Sudafed. It’s far more serious injustice to be prevented from voting than from buying a Sudafed.
  2. Not all flavors of Sudafed require Picture ID
  3. It’s legal to have someone buy a Sudafed for me, it’s illegal to have someone vote for me.
  4. Voting is restricted to happening on one specific day. You can always come back tomorrow to buy your Sudafed if you need it
  5. Coincidentally there’s a good correlation between people (poor people, elderly people) who don’t have a picture ID. These people also happen to skew strongly Democratic.
  6. Coincidentally there’s no such correlation between people who want or need to fly


Why don’t they ask you for identification before letting you vote?

Every time there’s an election it seems like someone brings up the odd fact that you are not asked for ID here in Massachusetts before being allowed to cast your ballot. It seems to me that this is especially surprising to people from other countries. Here’s a good article that explores some of the reasons and arguments for and against requiring identification at the polling place.

The gist of it is here:

“In many states, an ID is required to vote. The ostensible purpose is to prevent people from casting a ballot for someone else – dead or alive. Historically, it was also used to prevent poor and minority voters, who are less likely to have government IDs, from voting.

No one would (publicly) admit to the second goal today, so the first is always the declared purpose. But does it work?

In my experience as a pollworker in Virginia, the answer is clearly “no”. There are two basic problems – the rules for acceptable IDs are so broad (so as to avoid disenfranchisement) as to be useless, and pollworkers are given no training as to how to verify an ID.” (from Do Photo IDs help prevent vote fraud?)

Interesting, eh?

Fareed Zakaria: “Are Americas Best Days Behind Us”?

I know it’s a provocative title, and sadly I suspect that many of the ‘intended audience’ will agree with much of what he says, but then also feel like there’s nothing that can be done about it.

I am a waning fan of the Sunday TV news shows. Nowadays it is so easy if you are inclined to keep up with the news, moment by moment that it’s hard to find much more than the usual platitudes and repetition.

Fareed Zakaria’s GPS program on Sundays for me is now easily the best. He has interesting, thoughtful segments that don’t fall into that boring greyness that the rest of TV news has become. Nowadays, I only tune in to TV news for the visuals.

So Fareed Zakaria’s new editorial in TIME magazine tells us:

“The following rankings come from various lists, but they all tell the same story.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), our 15-year-olds rank 17th in the world in science and 25th in math. We rank 12th among developed countries in college graduation (down from No. 1 for decades). We come in 79th in elementary-school enrollment. Our infrastructure is ranked 23rd in the world, well behind that of every other major advanced economy. American health numbers are stunning for a rich country: based on studies by the OECD and the World Health Organization, we’re 27th in life expectancy, 18th in diabetes and first in obesity. Only a few decades ago, the U.S. stood tall in such rankings. No more. There are some areas in which we are still clearly No. 1, but they’re not ones we usually brag about. We have the most guns. We have the most crime among rich countries. And, of course, we have by far the largest amount of debt in the world.” (from Fareed Zakaria)

Old news, right? I have seen stats like this before, and they are depressing. And yet any attempt to even talk about this is immediately shot down.

Also depressing is that for all that they are ‘common knowledge’ it seems like our leaders are unable to get out of the mode that they are in:

“So why are we tackling our economic problems in a manner that is shortsighted and wrong-footed? Because it is politically easy. The key to understanding the moves by both parties is that, for the most part, they are targeting programs that have neither a wide base of support nor influential interest groups behind them. (And that’s precisely why they’re not where the money is. The American political system is actually quite efficient. It distributes the big bucks to popular programs and powerful special interests.)

And neither side will even talk about tax increases, though it is impossible to achieve long-term fiscal stability without them. Certain taxes — such as ones on carbon or gas — would have huge benefits beyond revenue, like energy efficiency.” (from Fareed Zakaria)


Any politician who dares suggest that the U.S. can learn from — let alone copy — other countries is likely to be denounced instantly.

If someone points out that Europe gets better health care at half the cost, that’s dangerously socialist thinking.

If a business leader notes that tax rates in much of the industrialized world are lower and that there are far fewer loopholes than in the U.S., he is brushed aside as trying to impoverish American workers. If a commentator says — correctly — that social mobility from one generation to the next is greater in many European nations than in the U.S., he is laughed at.

Yet several studies, the most recent from the OECD last year, have found that the average American has a much lower chance of moving out of his parents’ income bracket than do people in places like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Canada. (from Fareed Zakaria)

I probably will be branded as a socialist just for liking this article.


Finally a little bit of insight on what’s going on in Wisconsin

I’ve seen several interviews with Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, about his efforts to ‘balance the budget’. I put that in scare quotes because there’s a good case to be made that his agenda is different or at least well beyond that.

He’s very articulate about his position, and quite convincing. None of the interviewers had anything to add to the debate other than, “gee aren’t you union busting?” and “gee, how come isn’t it good enough that the unions have agreed to the financial concessions?” And the Governor has very good answers to each of the obvious questions.

Along comes David Brooks, as of now, my favorite op-ed columnist in the New York Times (sorry Tom Friedman, you’ve been repeating yourself for a while now, and it gets tiresome to see you constantly try to launch your own memes — you’ve been replaced.)

David Brooks adds something very interesting and new to the debate.  Basically his point is that not all unions are alike, and in fact, there’s a crucial and never discussed difference between public sector unions and private sector unions:

“[…snip…] public sector unions and private sector unions are very different creatures. Private sector unions push against the interests of shareholders and management; public sector unions push against the interests of taxpayers. Private sector union members know that their employers could go out of business, so they have an incentive to mitigate their demands; public sector union members work for state monopolies and have no such interest.

Private sector unions confront managers who have an incentive to push back against their demands. Public sector unions face managers who have an incentive to give into them for the sake of their own survival. Most important, public sector unions help choose those they negotiate with. Through gigantic campaign contributions and overall clout, they have enormous influence over who gets elected to bargain with them, especially in state and local races.

As a result of these imbalanced incentive structures, states with public sector unions tend to run into fiscal crises. They tend to have workplaces where personnel decisions are made on the basis of seniority, not merit. There is little relationship between excellence and reward, which leads to resentment among taxpayers who don’t have that luxury.[…snip…]” (from Make Everybody Hurt, New York Times)

If this is interesting to you, read Make Everybody Hurt in The New York Times.


Like many, I don’t know yet whether I support or condemn the Wikileaks action that has been discussed and debated at length on all fora. You have to agree that it has yielded some interesting insights about the way the world works.

First of all: as far as a diplomat making snide comments about one world leader or another, big deal! I mean it’s embarrassing (like someone hacking your email account or finding your personal diary) but certainly no one is surprised — gossiping and show boating is human nature, yes?

A friend of mine who has been in the foreign service for a long time read the cables with gusto and said if nothing else, it shows that the US foreign service officials are smart and thoughtful and do an impressive and important job.

From that perspective he feels pride that the work that he’s done in obscurity for years finally gets seen by his friends and colleagues who can now appreciate it for what it is.

Here are some more serious questions that occur to me:

  • If it is illegal for Wikileaks to publish cables that they received (from essentially a whistleblower in the Defense department) then why is it not equally illegal for the New York Times to publish them? Is it because the NYT is ‘more reasonable’ and will more likely do what the government wants them to do?
  • Think about having a thumb drive with 500,000 documents on it. What do you do with it? What’s the point of making it available, even to someone with a ‘need to know’? How do you make sense of it. Talk about trying to find a needle in a haystack. Chances are good that you won’t. It brings up the importance of tools and systems to process, classify, summarize and in general make sense of it.
  • This leak appears to have been the work of a lone whistleblower. How is it even possible that a single person has access to such a huge collection of documents? Given the size of thumb drives (I just bought a 16Gig drive for under $30) keeping them from moving in and out of secure buildings is impossible. So the problem is access to the data, and ability to ‘export it’ at all.

Some final links if you are still with me. Look at this very interesting summary article in the New York Times, which comments on one of the questions I raise above:

“Mr. Packer is very much against the prosecution of WikiLeaks on grounds of treason because, he said, “discerning the legal difference between what WikiLeaks did and what news organizations do is difficult and would set a terrible precedent.” (from The New York Times)

Look at this interesting post by David Weinberger, commenting on a fantastic article by Jeremy Wagstaff, who says:

“No, the problem that WikiLeaks unearths is that the most powerful nation on earth doesn’t seem to have any better way of working with all this information than anyone else. Each cable has some header material—who it’s intended for, who it’s by, and when it was written. Then there’s a line called TAGS, which, in true U.S. bureaucratic style doesn’t actually mean tags but “Traffic Analysis by Geography and Subject”—astate department system to organize and manage the cables. Many are two letter country or regional tags—US, AF, PK etc—while others are four letter subject tags—from AADP for Automated Data Processing to PREL for external political relations, or SMIG for immigration related terms.” (from Jeremy Wagstaff: Data, Wikileaks and War“)

You see, this Wikileaks question raises some important and tricky questions, and they are not all about who called who by what name.

Wikileaks: Truth or Truthy or something entirely different?

David Weinberger has, as usual, an interesting take, and some interesting links relevant to our perception and the defense or offense of Wikileaks. From his post:

“I here just want to comment on a particular theory of truth that many are using to justify Wikileaks. This ideas says that “the truth” is a neutral and accurate depiction of how the world is. One is thus always justified in stating the truth.

That definition may be true, or it may be true as stipulated, but it’s not useful. In fact, it’s the opposite of useful because it misses truth’s value. Someone who babbles an endless series of true statements is insane. Kierkegaard talked about this as “objective madness.”

He imagines a patient walking home from a stay in an insane asylum trying to convince people he’s sane by repeating over and over something true: “The world is round. The world is round.” The same ex-patient would be just as insane if he varied his list of true things as he strolls down the street: “The world is round. Books have weight. Wheels roll. My toenails are growing.” (from Truth is Not Enough)

Why we need new election technology

I work at the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation, where we are creating new, modern, open source, and publicly owned  technology for operating all aspects of voting in the US.

By the way, do not assume this means ‘internet voting’ — it does not. There is a lot of old technology use to run elections today, a lot of it developed and sold (expensive) by for profit companies. And there’s a lot more to running an election than how a voter casts a vote. We aim to develop tools and technology that is made available for free to anyone who wants it.

It’s important and exciting work. I came across this bit as a small reminder of why we need it:

“Once the polls close, each of the digital scanners used at the city’s polling sites spews out a supermarketlike receipt. Election workers cut the paper strips and sort them by election district, since a polling place may serve more than one district. They then use a calculator to tally the results for each candidate, and the count is transcribed by hand onto “return of canvass” forms. They are given to police officers at the polling places, who take them to local precinct houses, where the numbers are entered in a computer and transmitted to the board and to The Associated Press — which distributes them to other news organizations.” (from Recount Finds 195,000 Voters Were Missed on Election Night)