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Technology and Tools

August 26, 2006

Blog Character Assassination

Posted by tunesmith at 04:02 AM

Bloggers try to invite in portions of their personal lives to make their voices more authentic and more credible. They deliberately soften the line between what is and isn't too personal to share publicly. There's an element of trust there between blogger and reader; between bloggers and other bloggers. There is trust that the elements of one's personal life that aren't shared through the blog won't be researched and made public by others. Part of that idealism and trust comes from being a young community - that shared sense of common cause, of looking out for each other.

What can cause this to break down? Spiteful personal relationships. Political interests. Community breakdowns (the blogging community isn't so young anymore... being connected as a "fellow blogger" isn't such a powerful idea anymore...).

I'm amazed it hasn't happened more often. Welcome to 2008. It's all too easy to practice the "politics of personal destruction" (sharing embarrassing personal details) on bloggers, since they don't have the protection of celebrity or power. All you need is a few opening salvos. Then you'll experience some true blogwars, that will potentially have a chilling effect on the voice of blogging itself.

August 23, 2006

Multi-Disciplinary Education

Posted by tunesmith at 10:58 PM

Looks like I got quoted in the Daily Journal of Commerce - my basic point was that having a multi-disciplinary understanding helps one to create better solutions, since there are more points of connection to draw upon. It's a fact that is relevant to all spheres, from politics to software engineering (my firm). The interview was part of an article by Peter Wright, an expert on education and technology that directs new media for University of Phoenix.

December 04, 2005


Posted by tunesmith at 12:06 AM

There is a pretty cool site called EcoLanguage that is doing graphical flash presentations to quickly explain complicated conceptual topics, including political topics. It's similar to what I was trying to do back when I was drawing graphs and pamphlets about Bush's Social Security farce. Check it out.

September 08, 2005

Katrina Torrent

Posted by tunesmith at 08:42 PM

It's a bit eerie that "torrent" fits so well with Katrina, but anyway... there is a torrent making the rounds that puts together about twenty-five video clips of the media behaving like they've found their spine again. The more people that try to download it, the easier the download. Try it out...

Katrina Torrent.

September 04, 2005

Katrina Technology

Posted by tunesmith at 01:31 AM

One of the sites that a lot of people have heard of by now is MoveOn's Hurricane Housing. Very cool that it came up so fast.

But another site that I think deserves a lot more attention, and which I've found not as many people know about, is Air America's Public Voicemail service. The way it works is that you call 1-866-217-6255, and then enter in your phone number as it existed before the disaster, and create a message. People that may be looking for you can then call the service, enter your phone number if they are looking for you, and hear your message. They might be able to leave a message, too. It's a great way to try and find people or be found.

The hard part of that one is that it seems more valuable to the people who are currently lost, and I'm not sure how they'll find out about the phone number. Hopefully it is being publicized on the radio.

June 23, 2005

Yahoo, Chats, Kids, and Free Speech

Posted by tunesmith at 06:31 PM

Yahoo shut down all their user-created chat rooms today because they've been heavily criticized for unwittingly placing ads in chatrooms that people adults were using to solicit sex with children.

I haven't thought heavily about this, but at first glance, I don't see this as a defeat for free speech in any way. This is a corporation. A corporation should not have any power to inhibit free speech, but it doesn't mean it is required to create public platforms for new forms of free speech, either.

Yes, I know what the chatrooms were being used for, and no, I don't say "free speech" to defend the exploits of the kid-soliciting adults. I'm speaking more generally about the "right" for a member of a corporate website to have a user-created chatroom.

Anyone can create a chatroom elsewhere on private servers. No legislation was passed outlawing chatrooms. If it ever goes that direction, you bet I'd oppose it. But this is simply a corporation making a cost/benefit analysis and determining that the cost (financial, ethical, or moral) of giving child molesters a platform exceeded the benefit (marketing) of being able to say "we have user-created chatrooms!"

Finally, I think the societal benefit of yahoo offering user-created chatrooms is far less than it used to be. These were pretty cool internet-changing features back in 1998. Now you've got all sorts of peer-to-peer apps for chat, videochat, four-way videoconferencing, etc. In short, I don't really see this as a big deal.

June 20, 2005

GoDaddy and Gitmo

Posted by tunesmith at 01:00 PM

Well, this is just great.

Currently, if you go to the home page of (the most popular domain name registrar, that also holds some of my domain names), you'll see a bit of text up at the top of the page that says,

Close Gitmo? No way!! Think our interrogation methods are tough? Prisoners in the Middle East talk quick. Here's why.

It links to this entry on the weblog of GoDaddy's founder, Bob Parsons. The entry starts with "May we never forget the day." It continues with an salacious discussion of torture techniques, and ends with him promising to post a video of the 9/11 jumpers leaping to their deaths if he gets enough requests.

This sucks. I actually tried to make excuses for Bob Parsons at first - he's a military vet with libertarian tendencies and he's got a lot of viewpoints that I don't share, but he seemed to be thoughtful in his own way, at first. This is just ridiculous, though.

Using 9/11 as justification for Gitmo is cowardly. Cowardly. Here's why. Using even the slightest bit of reason, it's easy to see that there are all sorts of ways to better protect the USA without engaging in the kind of abuses we see at Gitmo. Those people who refuse to see that are deliberately closing their minds, and it's because they are scared to see the alternatives. They hide behind bluster and false machismo. It's corrupt, base, and all too easy to dehumanize someone, turn them into an insect, and make them defecate on themselves. It's harder to act with the principles that hold ourselves to a higher standard than our enemies and set an example to the rest of the world. It's possible to hold ourselves to principled standards and also do what needs to be done, and those who refuse to consider that are selling their souls to take the easy way out. That's cowardice. Cross that with an appreciation of torture porn and snuff films, and you've got a true degenerate.

People are talking about this on Daily Kos, metafilter, and soon, I imagine, slashdot. I'm looking around for a new consensus choice of registrars myself. It'd be great to find one with progressive sensibilities, but I'd settle for one that respects consumer and privacy rights, and doesn't feature unconscionable political views on the front page of their corporate website.

Update: Son of a gun! Parsons retracts:

Since this blog article was posted I have been accused repeatedly of supporting the use of torture to get information from prisoners. This is simply not true. I do not, under any circumstance, support the use of torture. I do not consider the use of interrogation techniques such as sleep deprivation or the playing of rap music to be torture. That said, I now believe that even these mild methods are not necessary.

I have heard from a number of individuals who claimed to be professional interrogators. These readers have pointed out that the use of annoying or unpleasent techniques during interrogation simply do not work very well. After looking at the references they provided, and giving the matter some thought, I tend to agree and think that the there's a good argument for changing the way in which prisoners at Gitmo are interrogated. Thus things like sleep deprivation, playing loud rap music and other techniques that involve making the detainee physically uncomfortable would be completely done away with and replaced with psychological techniques that are more humane and as such yield better results. I have since modified the article that was originally posted here to reflect what I just learned.

Now, the thing about him not supporting torture is bullshit, given that his original entry said things like, "Key prisoners at Gitmo still have not talked -- because our interrogation methods are so weak." But still, we have a backdown. Awesome.

June 01, 2005


Posted by tunesmith at 12:53 AM

Looks like TPMCafe has finally launched. Thank the stars. There is finally another go-to community site for Democrats. It's clearly more serious-minded than Daily Kos. If I see another "chickenhawks should go die in Iraq!" post at dkos, I'm going to scream.

May 13, 2005

Nuclear Text Messaging

Posted by tunesmith at 01:21 AM

There's a pretty cool system being put together here - give them your SMS cell phone information, and you'll be informed the minute Frist pulls the trigger to try and vote on the nuclear option. You'll even be given phone numbers to call to pressure Congress not to do it.

April 11, 2005

IBM Calls For Patent Reform

Posted by tunesmith at 12:02 PM

This isn't a subject that gets a lot of play in the political world, but it's definitely something that needs more attention if we care about America's ability to quickly innovate and reward talent in the future. IBM, one of the largest patent-holders in the U.S., has called for patent reform. Neither Republicans nor Democrats have made much noise about this subject, and in fact, those with more lobbying connections are probably on the wrong side of the issue.

April 08, 2005

Social Security: Make Your Own Graph

Posted by tunesmith at 12:24 AM

If politology goes a bit quiet from time to time, it's usually going to be because I am working on some software to make politology cooler. I'm going to be doing that often on this site.

I've just finished a nice little tool to help everyone with their social security arguments, or perhaps just to help a little bit with education. It's a graphing tool to explore the social security budget. Right now it handles the history back through 1970, and projections up through 2080. It also allows you to see what past projections looked like so you can see how inaccurate they were. Here's an example graph:

But, that's just an example. You can go here to make your own graph - any year range, other projections, etc. You can then bookmark or link to the page for the graph you create, just by using the url in the url bar. For instance, here's 1970 through 2010.

The tool will be expanded over time. Soon there will also be a trust fund graphing tool. I'm hoping to show the "Low" and "High" projections as well. And over time I'll add other budgetary figures.

It creates a flash, so you can't simply copy the graph. You can always take a cropped screenshot, though. But I'm hoping to soon create code to allow you to embed the resulting flash into your own weblogs using javascript.

If you know of any cool data sources I could use, let me know - I'm interested in Bush's prior-year budget projections, for one thing. Those could be some entertaining graphs.

(The software utilizes a php software package that lets you create any number of cool looking graphs. But the data wrangling, formatting, and dynamic functionality is the part that I did.)

March 29, 2005

M.G.M. / Grokster Oral Arguments

Posted by tunesmith at 02:26 PM

Oral arguments happened today in the case of M.G.M. v. Grokster. Strange bedfellows all around on this - you'll see established recording artists like Henley and Sheryl Crow against independent artists like Brian Eno and Chuck D. Here's some wire coverage. Some other coverage. SCOTUSBlog has in-depth coverage.

I enjoyed this part of the msnbc coverage:

Justice Antonin Scalia maintained that a ruling for entertainment companies could mean that if “I’m a new inventor, I’m going to get sued right away.”

Update: Salon has feature coverage.

Graphing Social Security

Posted by tunesmith at 02:16 AM

For those that want a prettier graphical view of Social Security's outlook, here is social security's surplus/deficit. Historical since 1970, 2005 projections through 2050, as a percentage of taxable payroll:

Note that we have gone into deficit before, for a many-year period.

Here is the trust fund ratio - assets over expenditures, same time range.

It clearly shows we've drawn from the trust fund successfully in the past, and it worked fine.

That's an interesting dip they've projected from 2004 to 2005 in the most recent Trustee Report.

These graphs are generated dynamically from data I've collected from the SSA Trustee reports. Clicking on the graphs will take you to the site that wrote the base software package. I've written scripts to get parts of the data, but there are plenty of more possible graphs to draw - the "High Cost" or "Low Cost" assumptions, different year ranges, prior year projections, etc. For instance, here is the current projection of the deficit date, compared to projections in some prior years, zoomed to 1996-2020.

Note that the projected date will improve significantly as soon as we begin our next recession. Whaa...?

I'm working on a tool to allow people to select data sources and generate their own graphs through a web form. These are flash files, so you can't copy the images. But you can link to this blog entry, or you can crop screenshots. Watch Politology for more features.

March 28, 2005

M.G.M. v. Grokster

Posted by tunesmith at 08:37 PM

There's a big day tomorrow in the technology world. Oral arguments are happening at the Supreme Court for M.G.M. v. Grokster. The basic question is whether companies that develop filesharing software can be held liable for the behavior of its users when they don't respect copyright.

This a highly unfortunate wedge issue on all sides because it is confusing. But this is very much a case of the little guy versus the big guy. Technology is an enabler, and it develops quickly. This means that there can often be "awkward adolescent stages", such as when very exciting developments in technology can lead to a surge in what had always been seen as criminal behavior.

But the absolute wrong thing to do is to limit the ability to create new technologies, and that is basically what this case is about.

M.G.M. is on the regulation side, and Grokster is on the free market side. But this is a case where the free market advantages the little guy, and regulation advantages the big corporation. In this case, you've got free market AND the little guy - it should be a no brainer as to which side should be the winner.

I am a musician. I'm licensed with ASCAP as a writer and a publisher, and I care about copyright. But the way to deal with this exciting technology is to leverage it to enable more marketing and distribution paths for the independent artist, not to clamp down on technology so that all marketing and distribution paths are gateways controlled by those who have the most legislative influence.

Legislators who have proven they've been willing to consider this issue thoughtfully include Rick Boucher (D), Chris Cannon (R), and Orrin Hatch (R). Many Democrats that have lobbying relationships with the entertainment industry have been on the wrong side of this issue. This is one of those cases where everything is topsy-turvy and "Democrats versus Republicans" does not apply.

TalkLeft appears to be on the wrong side. Atrios seems to have it correct.

And check out what Mark Cuban has to say when he discloses that he financed EFF's effort against M.G.M. It should be required reading for those on the fence.

It wont be a good day when high school entrepreneurs have to get a fairness opinion from a technology oriented law firm to confirm that big music or movie studios wont sue you because they can come up with an angle that makes a judge believe the technology might impact the music business. It will be a sad day when American corporations start to hold their US digital innovations and inventions overseas to protect them from the RIAA, moving important jobs overseas with them. [...] Its about our ability to use future innovations to compete vs their ability to use the courts to shut down our ability to compete. its that simple.

Myself? I think America is in trouble because of accumulating debt, and I believe our best chance to beat it is to innovate our way out of it. That means pro-technology, pro-innovation, pro-small business, patent reform, copyright reform - all to enable freedom of movement for small businesses, inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. We have been on the opposite road for a while now, and have departed from what Jefferson intended. If you care about small business, innovation, and the little guy, root for Grokster.

March 22, 2005

Tools To Track Government

Posted by tunesmith at 01:08 PM

I've written previously about some new systems that would have to be widely used to better encourage people to take action online. One such system is a bill tracker that is better than Thomas.

There's a site that is making major strides in improving upon Thomas, and it's called Go check it out.

You can:

  • Look up any congresscritter, bill, or subcommittee
  • Subscribe to any of the above
  • Be notified by email of any changes from a bill or a vote
  • Have your blog posts syndicated on bill's page
  • Syndicate feeds from the site on your own weblog

I currently have monitors set up for both S.256 and H.R. 685.

Its main flaw is that the data isn't live, because it depends on Thomas data, which is usually out of date by about two days. So for true breaking news, it isn't useful. But for data tracking of legislation, it works great. It also has a development group. Its data set is even downloadable.

Project Vote Smart also has congress-tracking data, but it's more about actual candidates than legislation.

For those wanting to get more involved in the actual development of governmental data exchange systems, there is an online working group called OGDEX that has launched recently.

Contacting the Media

Posted by tunesmith at 02:26 AM seems to have a tool that makes it very easy to contact your local media organizations. I asked about this about a week ago and I just stumbled across it tonight. Here's the page for Oregon.

Political Tools

Posted by tunesmith at 12:09 AM

Adina Levin of SocialText comments (here, here) on my earlier post, Activism on Weblogs.

I had mentioned the many political organizations sending out "action alerts" that compete for our attention. Levin notes rightly that this could be cobbled together through a mixture of RSS feeds.

This is correct, however there is a larger challenge about action items that would remain unresolved. When people have an urge to volunteer, it's usually abstract and not very targeted. We usually just go and sign up. In a sense, a bombarding mailing list is the perfect match for that, because it's similarly untargeted.

So there remains the problem of the nonspecific nature of the action alerts - sending money, signing a petition. That needs to be solved from the requesting side.

Nevertheless, if you are an online political organization, it is a very good idea to create a feed of your action alerts. If you're a subscriber, request it from anyone who sends out these emails. People could then subscribe to individual feeds, or intermediary services could aggregate them.

Yochai Benkler's classic "Coase's Penguin" theorizes that "peer production" will arise where there is a vast supply of decentralized skills, low transaction costs, and low communication costs. It stands to reason that these dynamics will come into play with political action as well.

In the political blogosphere, we've definitely got the first and third. If I define the "transaction cost" as being the distance between feeling "someone's gotta do something!" and ranting about it on a weblog, and then actually figuring out how to do that something, then that's where we have to make progress.

Here's how one such system would look:

It would start as a discussion site, probably more like Scoop than a normal weblog. The site would have to be membership-driven. I believe the pages would have to be promoted from within, but using user-defined trust metrics. But at any rate, the site would have to start with discussion - the motivation to do things starts with discussion and identifying need. Then, at any point, someone might identify an action item.

At that point, they could create a project. The project would be closely tied into the discussion site. It would be similar to a bug-tracking system, except more freeform. They could identify an objective, and then brainstorm about it through a related forum and/or wiki with other members interested in the project. The entire project could be made public or private.

The project would yield tasks that could be linked together in a variety of ways. The tasks could be assigned to particular members - if no one is available, the task would be advertised as a form of job opening that would advertised on the site for the community.

Tasks and projects could be "tagged" with many tags, labels, or categories. And so could users. At any point, a user could search for projects that match their interests or skills. A project manager could also search for users that match the tags of their project. At any point, these users could approach each other to explore a potential match. (Users would undoubtedly also search for users for other side-benefit purposes.)

Beyond that, it's just a matter of adding gear. You could create reports, you could find projects with common objectives, you could create very pretty flowcharts with technologies such as dot and graphviz. And all of it would be driven by an active community that first enjoys blogging and discussing together, but second is interested in going further by taking action. That is where the critical mass would come from.

The online action community is very small and young. Even now, when people determine they need to take action, there is very little understanding in the blogosphere of how to do it. Even with the bankruptcy bill, there weren't a lot of ideas that didn't require somehow inspiring a massive sea change of public opinion within days. With greater maturity and sophistication, the community will be able to identify actions that are actually doable with the resources they have. With more powerful tools, we'll be able to increase our resources dramatically.

The question is, which publishing toolkit is closest to this combination of features? The two that I know of are Scoop and Drupal/Civicspace. There are also plenty of CMS systems I know less about. I could write one from scratch in perl or php but it would take hundreds of hours.
March 16, 2005

Activism On Weblogs

Posted by tunesmith at 01:01 PM

Think. Say. Do. That's the basic cycle we all go through when we want to make big changes.

Think: It could merely be a growing sense that something ain't right. That something needs to change. You might not know exactly what yet, or maybe you're considering possibilities.

Say: This is where we enter active negotiation with ourselves, and identify exactly what it is that is wrong. Rather than simply mulling the matter in the background, we tackle it head-on. Cynicism and self-defeatism shrinks.

Do: Finally, we take action to cause the change.

This happens with communities and nations, too. The rise of populism is always related to this process in a large population.

Our political system is overdue for a reshuffling. Congress has been too split apart from the interests of the public for too long. The bankruptcy bill is a perfect illustration of that.

How does the blogosphere fit into this cycle?

The blogosphere has thus far mostly been about "Say". As people get more engaged, they start sharing their opinions and discussing them online - they reinforce each other's views, pile on to causes, and start engaging in that dangerous practice - idealism. The blogosphere is perfectly built for this because it is so easy to find someone else with the same whacked-out crazy mix of interests. Hundreds of thousands of small ponds, with all of us as big fish.

So far, however, the blogosphere has not been a great fit for "Do". There are a myriad of cynical ways to say it - pajama-clad bloggers agreeing that something needs to be done, and then not doing anything - but the truth is simply that there is often still a long distance between "Say" and "Do".

However, the blogosphere broke down the barriers for "Say" already. Anyone can go to to create a free weblog, and there are clear upgrade paths.

Similarly, it's just a matter of time before more barriers are broken down for "Do". All it takes is the creation of more tools. The tools that will work best are the ones that can easily be dropped in to a person's existing weblog, regardless of platform. This requires open standards. Eventually all weblogs could have a spruced up open "plugin API" that supports more functionality than simply posting to a weblog.

In order to break down the "Do" barrier, here are some possible tools we could see:

  • A congress tracking system: Thomas sucks. There should be a system where any bill can be readable as text, annotated by the public, with discussion underneath. It should be hooked up to a congressperson-tracking system so we can track how they have been contacted by the public, what they think of the bill, and how they are likely to vote. It should be easy to look up a congressperson's complete vote history.
  • A public issue-tracking system: These have existed for software developers for a while - bugzilla; mantis - but they're so obtuse that only geeks get into them. Plus, they tend to only be for actual bugfixing of existing issues. There needs to be a new system where a community can
    1. Identify an objective
    2. Start working to publicly create tasks supporting that objective
    3. Assign those tasks to willing community members
    4. Track progress and make reports
    It's similar to bugtracking, but instead for public use and activism.
  • A better "volunteer tracking" system. A marketplace for matching up projects with specialized needs, with people that have specialized skills. Someone who needs a thirty-second music soundtrack for their political ad, or a large tab-delimited text file of precinct data put into a mysql database, should be able to define those needs somewhere for someone else to snap up. I can do either of those things, but no one would know it without that service.
  • An action aggregator: Right now we're being bombarded with tasks to call about this or that, and it's like they are competing with each other. It's nonsense - a service could be created to let people subscribe to daily missives for all the causes they care about.

Many of these tools are in development, and some are further off into the future. There are some closed systems like CivicSpace that require a certain weblog platform to take advantage of their tools, and many other standalone tools that can be dropped right in to any weblog. In addition, the blogosphere always jumps around in strange directions - will we be seeing a blog-driven public lobbying organization with paid lobbyists? An actual blog-driven shadow democracy with elections and office-holders?

Politology will be tracking these developments and analyzing how they are affecting politics. We'll also be actually working on developing some new tools; write if you want to be part of a development team.

Bankruptcy: Wednesday Action Items

Posted by tunesmith at 03:14 AM

Today is House-targeting day, and we have a very cool tool to help us. has developed a tool to enable groups to track where congresscritters stand on particular issues. CongressTrack's creator is allowing the tool to be used by anyone (whether conservative, liberal, or anything else) for the bankruptcy bill.

I've set up three trackers for groups of representatives in the House. I have several categories for the representatives, and they are all currently in the "Uncontacted" category.

The first group is The Cosponsors. It would be a real accomplishment to get someone to unsponsor, the sort of thing that could start feeding on itself. If you go through the list, you might find some real surprises. I am personally very surprised to see Rick Boucher (D-WA) on that list; one of his specialties is internet law and he's always been on the side of the little guy in those battles. There are six other Democrats on the list.

The second group is The House Judiciary Committee. It's likely that many of these are definitely voting against the bill, but they need to be contacted to make sure.

The third group is The Democratic Letter Signers. I just don't understand these people; many of them are asking for a quick turnaround, but have not endorsed the bill. It would be progress if we can get any of these folks to promise to vote No.

Action: Click the above links to find the representatives, and then click their names to get their contact information. This tool makes it very easy to contact them.

Then, tell us what you find out. It is not sufficient to simply give them a piece of your mind. Make your case, and then ask where they stand. If they are one on of the lists, ask them if they will withdraw. Ask them how they are going to vote, and let us know if they are voting yes, no, or are thinking about it. I will then be able to go to the pages for the campaigns and update the status for the representatives in question.

I'll be out part of the day - I have a weekly trip to Seattle to take a film orchestration class - but will keep tabs on comments and status. On Thursday, we'll catch up with the state of things around the blogosphere.

March 14, 2005

Bankruptcy: Write Your Congresscritters

Posted by tunesmith at 12:01 AM

Thanks to The People's Email Network, we now have a tool up to easily allow you to write your Congresscritters from Politology.

Visit our Write Your Congresscritters page to send emails. You will type in your address and your message, and the message about the bankruptcy bill will automatically go to your own Senators and your own Representative.

In addition, PEN will be giving updates to members of the House Judiciary Committee about the level of opposition to this bill.

Note - it's viral. You can include email addresses to contacts that you want to enlist, and they will be sent information.

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