ShellyBlog Shelly Brisbin's life consists of several long tails. She writes about them here.

September 11, 2008

Rewarding Innovation with your Vote

Filed under: Politics and Public Affairs — Shelly Brisbin @ 3:03 PM

I was reading a Robert Scoble blog post just now. Honestly, that’s something I try to avoid, but what can I say, I’m very click-y today.

Scoble was reminding us of his idea that the United States needs a chief technology officer (CTO)., and that he thinks Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig is just the guy to take that on. While I’m not hear to advocate for or against Mr. Lessig being offered such a position, the idea reminded me of something that is critical in my personal political decision-making, particularly at the presidential level, who will run the government with creativity and innovation?

Think about something for a second. If a presidential candidate tells you he or she will fix health care, and you believe him or her, you also have to believe that the “fix” will get through the gauntlet of lobbyists, interest groups, congressional pork-grabbers, and hammering of the opposing party. Because even if the candidate’s proposal is a good idea, the other party will not want to offer up a victory. So, assuming the candidate does pass that health care plan, it will, in all likelihood, be less than the promise was, and will leave a bad taste in the mouths of many ordinary citizens who drank Kool-Aid during a political campaign.

Ditto any other campaign-born initiative that requires the passage of legislation and/or major overhauls to the structure of government entities.

On the other hand, a president can make a big mark on domestic and foreign policy within the executive branch, both by appointing smart, honest, innovative agency heads, and establishing opportunities for new ideas to flourish within and across those agencies that the president controls. A smart energy secretary could, for example, direct appropriated funds to pilot projects that support research into a particular plug-in hybrid technology. A health policy czar could hire department heads whose backgrounds are in public health, and who therefore focus on preventative care for the uninsured (saves money), cessation of bad habits like drug use (reduces both mortality and crime), or AIDS prevention within the next generation of gay teens. Creative-thinking state department section heads could forestall military interaction with under-developed economies by promote US trade before China swoops in. And a national CTO could rewrite the structure of technology planning and acquisition within the federal government, integrating lon-germ planning efforts, and allowing procurers to buy and install new technology with a quicker turn-around.

No presidential candidate could or would run on issues like making sure the IRS computer system is not obsolete before it is installed, or developing effective information management tools for government managers on the go. But a president whose hiring priorities emphasized innovation and gave executives the authority to overturn systems that do not work would arguably do more to improve the effectiveness of the way government functions than almost anything else, especially if passing legislation is involved.

I believe Barack Obama is much more likely to seek out innovators than is John McCain. For one thing, the recent ideological steamroller that is the current Republican administration has a lot to do with my interest in this topic. The last eight years are littered with examples of ideology, political loyalty and/or cronyism trumping competence in the hiring of executive branch leaders. For all his recent talk of change, McCain’s reliance on lobbyists and other Washington hacks as advisors does not lead me to believe that toppling the current infrastructure and replacing it with the best and the brightest is at the top of his list, or, quite frankly, anywhere on it. Obama certainly has his share of politically connected types, but you’ll also find a good many academics, former diplomats and others who actually want to do the work of making government better, more efficient, more responsive, and more sure-footed, especially when it comes to technology.

As Thomas Frank points out in his new book, Wrecking Crew, a large strain of the conservative movement has no interest in making it better. In extreme cases, they actively seek to break government, in order to further their efforts to destroy support for its work. In less extreme cases, the “smaller government” mantra that seems to be tattooed onto the forehead of many Republican appointees means they’ll lack the enthusiasm or the creativity to be good at their jobs. And people who aren’t suited to their jobs, or don’t like their jobs, tend not to be motivated to do them well.

September 9, 2008

Another new nano?

Filed under: New Media and Tech — Shelly Brisbin @ 2:40 PM

Am I really the only person who finds Apple’s frequent tinkering with the iPod nano design tedious? The first nano had physical problems (read, it got scratched a lot), the second was a thing of beauty, the third was chunky and awkward, and the fourth, well, I haven’t seen one, so I’m withholding judgment. Other than an altered menu system and the ability to play video (do y’all play video on your nanos?) it’s essentially the same device that was released in 2005.

I love the nano. In all versions, the size was just about right, both physically, and in terms of storage. It is (for Apple) affordable, and it’s mostly a pretty tough little device. But unlike the iPhone or iPod Touch, which really does need to progress along a design and technology curve at frequent intervals, the regular rejiggering of the nano line just doesn’t feel necessary. I’m a happy second gen nano owner. In fact, it might just be my favorite iPod, all things considered. It does its thing and it does it well. And I think my little blue friend is plenty good-looking.

September 2, 2008

Thoughts on Sarah Palin

Filed under: Politics and Public Affairs — Shelly Brisbin @ 1:23 PM

On a purely emotional level, I wanted to like Sarah Palin. She’s energetic, she’s interesting, she’s my age, and she talks about the things I care about, namely reform of government. And I suspected that her approach to governing included a healthy dollop of civility. Also good, in my book.

On the other hand, I’m a Democrat, and there’s no chance I’ll be voting for Palin and John McCain.

My party has a point when it notes Palin’s lack of national experience, and the briefness of her executive experience. And yes, this “goes to judgment” where John McCain is concerned, since he seems not even to have known the governor before choosing her to be his running mate.And, oh yeah, she’s a lot more attached to guns and creationism than I’d like. But my interest in this story, and I have a lot of interest, is really in the frenzy about it, and the peripheral questions.

It has been an article of faith in the Republican political apparatus that Democrats should be painted as radical, strange, and, if possible, foreign. Foreign is really good because despite the cliche that “anyone can grow up to be president”, the anyone had better fit within a pretty narrow range of beliefs, experiences and physical characteristics.

There’s a way in which including black and female candidates in the ranks of those being considered for high office makes those parameters even more narrow, because the “minority” candidate must devote a large amount of time to proving how, despite being “different” he or she is really just like “the rest of us”. I bring this up here because, as I watch my side dissect everything Sarah Palin has ever done or said, I see what the Dems have learned from Republican thuggery over time, and how their vows not to get fooled again have created skills and scars.

The freelance muckrakers of the lefty blogosphere have wasted no time doing things John McCain seems not to have done, like using Google and reading up on Alaska politics. Everything that looks promising has been thrown out onto blogs for examination, and TV networks and newspaper reporters have scrambled to catch up. We’ve learned that Palin was once a member of an outlaw political party, that she was for the bridge to nowhere before she was against it, and that her 17-year old daughter is pregnant. Those who have dug up these tidbits are fired as much by the unfair attacks on Democrats by their opponents as they are by the details of these stories. The founder of the Alaska Independence Party said he wasn’t an American, but an Alaskan. The folks who dug that up were doubtless thinking of guilt by association attacks on Barack Obama. “For it before she was against it” is quoted directly from the attack on John Kerry’s explanation of his votes on Iraq war funding. and best of al, if you’re angered by hypocrisy, is the pro-life, arch=conservative, family values Republican who, like so many parents, has learned that her daughter, still in high school, and unmarried, is pregnant. Oh yeah. And troopergate? Snicker snicker.

What makes it even sweeter is that Palin, as new kid on the political block, is completely fair game, and the Republican defenses of her, a person, they do not know, sound hollow and scripted. For the same reasons, Palin herself has not yet fought back. In fact, she has had no public events since Sunday, which is just plain odd. She has not sat down for a heart to heart interview with Oprah, Barbara Walters or Rush Limbaugh. Barely moments after her appearance on the campaign stage, she is hidden away as the damage control//post-selection vetting process proceeds. And this should worry her supporters, and Republicans generally. Because that one-on-one sit down interview, preferably with husband and champion snow machine racer Todd by her side, is an essential part of her acceptance into the political world. The longer she delays doing it, the more likely it is that we will be greeting a new Republican vice presidential candidate before two weeks are out.

My least favorite part of the Palin drama is the bottom-feeding pundit class, and the way television-centric coverage sustains and perpetuates this vile form of discourse: standard practice in politics these days is to invite roughly equal numbers of liberals and conservatives into little boxes on the teevee to debate the merits of a person or issue. As it has come to be practiced, this means that each side parrots the views of the political party with which they are affiliated, leading to boring, inside the box conversation. The Palin situation puts this appalling situation on prominent display, as invited Republicans ignore questions of her experience, praising someone they know nothing about, and Democrats slip in jabs that are just this side of sexist. At no time does an actual voter gain the floor, or express an opinion that is at right angles with the political parties. And at absolutely no point does someone say, “You know Larry, I just haven’t made up my mind yet.”

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