Let’s Not Forget What the Enemy Is

. . . bad code! Some random thoughts on a technological love triangle, why I hate Microsoft, and how the world inside our computers should be more like the world outside of them

So, Apple and Adobe aren’t getting along. And Google and Apple are on the outs. There are cries that Apple/Google/Adobe needs to be more open and transparent. Google need this. Adobe needs that.

What fools these mortals be! Let’s all stop for a second and remember where we’re coming from. Picture if you will a timber-industry forest . . . row after row of trees, and not just trees, but all the same species and often times trees that are essentially identical. That’s the landscape that existed 10 years ago, brought to you by Microsoft. Remember them? Small little company up someplace in the Pacific Northwest called Redmond I think. They’ve accounted for 85%-90% of the client-side OS marketshare for seemingly forever. Oh, and in that article link (published in 2000), an industry analyst said “the Mac OS continues to be a non-threatening element in the market.”

Forest picture taken someplace close to Redmond I'm sureSo why do I equate Microsoft with a monotonous, undifferentiated forest? Well, there’s the obvious dominance of the market, but also because, despite what they claim in every press release, they are the antithesis of innovation. Oh, they may purchase a company and/or technology once in awhile, and bring it out to the masses, but once that happens, it’s dullsville. The technology languishes. This isn’t because of some malevolent effort by the Microsoft suits — no, it’s just a function of the fact that Microsoft is essentially as old-school as IBM at this point. They’d love to innovate, but that market-share of installed tech is an albatross around their necks. By the time they’re able to integrate a new technology, they’ve reached a decision tree fork : option a) continue to expand use and integration of new technology or b) shoehorn in whatever newer technology that is out there and people are clamoring for. As far as I can tell, they always choose option b.

Why does all that matter when discussing Adobe/Apple/Google? Since the popularization of personal computing technology, there have always been only a handful of dominate players in terms of hardware and software, and very little balanced competition — usually you’ve got a dominant player, and one or two also-rans that help keep the antitrust folks from breaking someone up. You’ve got something like a close to 90-percent chance that, if you’re reading this on a computer, it’s got an Intel processor and is running some flavor of Windows. In ecological circles, you know what they call that? Monoculture. And it is invariably a sign of a weak,sick, or damaged ecosystem. There’s never really been any evenly matched competition on PCs in terms of hardware or software.[note: just to be clear, I’m not talking about sellers of PCs, e.g. Dell, HP, etc. — that doesn’t count as they’re all selling the same damn thing)

The lack of diversity and healthy competition shows — Windows for all of it’s iterations, is a dinosaur. To mix my metaphors, every new versionof Windows strikes me as just another layer of lipstick on the dinosaur. Great – they add the “Aero” interface to Vista and Windows 7, but can they bother to include something better than Notepad to edit text files? Of course not. They now support 64-bit, but can’t come up with a better file system than NTFS?  You know how old NTFS is? 17 years! And the most recent version (used in XP, Vista and Windows 7!) is 9-years old!

Compare that to Mac OSX or Ubuntu – not only do those OSs manage to introduce major new features fairly regularly, but along the way, basic tools and services get improved as well.

So is Microsoft the enemy? No, and I ascribe no malice to them either. The enemy is, as Steve Jobs might say, software that is crap. And at the moment, Microsoft’s OS, web browser, and office suite are all crap. From antiquated technology to awkward interfaces and on to a lack of support for standards, Microsoft serves as the perfect negative-example of how to code software.

Which brings us back to our love triangle of Adobe/Apple/Google. I believe the paradigm of the 800-lb gorilla and everyone else we’ve been operating under for decades is about to change. And it shouldn’t be a question of who is more open and transparent, or who is more or less “evil” — the only things that matter should be: does the code work? is it elegant in design and function? does it fulfill a need? Other than that, there is no right or wrong. Now, that’s not to say that other personal preferences can’t come into play. You may only want to use open-source software, which is perfectly fine, but realize that is what works best for you may not be the “superior” choice for everyone else. You may only want to use technology X and never technology Y, but again, while that may work for you, it almost certainly doesn’t matter to most other people. What we often forget is that most users don’t care how something works, just as long as it does.

The lesson Microsoft should provide all of us is that a monoculture is bad. We need diversity in not only the hardware and software, but in approaches to coding the software, to sharing or selling it, and in how it is used. That will be the only way sustainable progress happens. Every time some blowhard pontificates on why some company’s product or service will bring about the end of the world, all they’re doing is displaying their backwards view. No company has that much control anymore – not even Microsoft. The computing world has gotten too big – too many devices, running too many different OSes, and too many different types of users and that’s a good thing.

So let Apple keep being Apple – Steve Jobs turned around a company headed to the trash heap of history and made it a dominate player in industries that didn’t even exist 10 years ago. They will never be as open as some want, but that’s what works for them and their users, and you can’t argue with that. They control the horizontal and the vertical, and that’s part of why the user experience on any Apple device is superior to almost every other competitor. No one is forcing anyone to use their stuff, so what’s with all the complaints?

And Adobe – don’t whine about Apple not accepting Flash for the iPhone. Flash is a crappy, klugey platform that I hope to see disappear within 5 years. It’s a clumsy tool that 95% of the time is used to create clumsy applications, it’s an accessibility nightmare, and your own tools to develop in it reflect all that perfectly. Oh, and considering your own history working with others developing software to work with your products, I’d not be complaining about Apple too loudly.

As for Google — are they a perfect company? No, and I don’t believe such a thing exists. But at the end of the day, they continue to push the borders of what we can do on the Internet and they genuinely seem interested in doing things in the most responsible manner possible. Do they probably need to focus on actually finishing and/or fixing things occasionally – hell yeah. And for all those worried that they’re going to be the next Microsoft – relax, there will never be another Microsoft – the technological and economic environments will never again sync up in such a way to create something on par with Microsoft.

In my ideal world, this would be the progression for any new service or technology. Google should create or develop it, Apple should then take it and make the interfaces functional and intuitive, and then Adobe can take on the maintenance,expansion, and support of it. Actually, in my ideal world, these three companies and all the others out there would do all of these steps well, but that has about much chance of happening as Microsoft delivering software that doesn’t make me start swearing.

Closing thought: Technodiversity? Should that be a term? If it isn’t, I think it should be. I believe in the future it will become as important a topic as biodiversity. Just as with the natural spaces, where biodiversity yields a healthier environment (more biomass, resistance to disease/pests, evolutionary progress), our cyberspace is dependent on technodiversity for dissemination of information, security, and further advances in technology.

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A Look Back @ Twitter

Okay, so I joined Twitter on July 4 2007, only a year after the full-scale version of the service was launched. This was my first tweet:

01:52:40 Creating my twitter account – woohoo!

And there that tweet sat, all by its lonesome for nearly two years, when I tweeted the following:

11:34:17 Adding my second tweet after two years so I won’t be listed at http://www.slate.com/id/2219995

The headline of the piece was “Orphaned Tweets: When people sign up for Twitter, post once, then never return.” by John Swansburg and Jeremy Singer-Vine. While not specifically mentioned, the article did sting a little – after all, for most of Web 2.0 I’ve been an early adopter, as a Web 2.0 world fits in with my preconceptions of how the Internet and technology in general should work: nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

I was still interested in Twitter, just really had no Twitter-shaped hole in my life to fill, and so once again, my account languished. However, this time for only about two months. And then a strange thing happened – on a music site I frequently browsed for new, independent acts, I happened to notice a number of artists I really liked listed Twitter accounts. Namely the ever-enchanting @Meiko and the ever-entertaining @jonathancoulton. Started thinking, “Hmm, wonder if some of my favorite authors are on Twitter?” And so then started following two personal writing heroes of mine, William Gibson (@GreatDismal) and Bruce Sterling (@bruces). From there, it snowballed – I found TV shows hosts, comedians, political activists, more musicians, more authors, etc. I followed all of them that I could find and that looked to tweet often enough to be interesting.

Two things happened next that completely changed how I used Twitter. The first was that I found out that a number of the artists and creative folks that I liked knew each other. This led me to old favorites, as well as some new discoveries. The second was that I started discovering other folks out there who liked many of the same people/things/ideas that I did and I started following them.

The “ripple in the pond” metaphor is a hack cliché, but you know what . . . that’s because it works damn it! – and in this case, it’s very appropriate. Because not only was I out there throwing stones in the water, but so was evidently everyone else, and interesting patterns develop when those ripples interact. Sometimes they magnify, and sometimes they cancel each other out, but it is in the end all about interaction. That realization completely changed how I thought of Twitter.

And because of those interactions, I made the online acquaintance of some fascinating people. People I likely wouldn’t have found in “real” life, on Facebook, or in other ways. There’s @shamrockjulie, who reintroduced me to Lost, and who has an abiding love of midgets, monkeys, unicorns and drag queens. Oh, and she regularly beats me at Scrabble, which is, let’s face it, pretty damn impressive. And there’s @KyleeLane, who makes soap — but not just any soap, she makes Han Solo in Carbonite soap and “Abby Normal” Brain soap and Fight Club soap (Hint: buy her soap – how often can you say you got clean with art?). Oh, and she has a sweet tooth to rival even my own and is one of the most creative, down-to-earth people you could ever imagine.

There’s also @tomupton33 who finds the best quotes, there’s @iA who I think knows more about interface design than any other single person on the planet, @barryintokyo who is a book editor and writer in Tokyo who provided me book recommendations on all things Japanese, and @anjkan who gets regularly retweeted by William Gibson (which gives you some idea how fricking far in the cool future she lives)  and is also just about one of the nicest people in the world. There are literally dozens of others now that I interact with regularly to find out the latest in web design, politics, and all-things-geeky.

Following creative people (the folks I follow I refuse to call celebrities because of the lack of substance that implies) on Twitter is a lot of fun and stuff I’ve read there has increased my enjoyment of tv shows, movies, books, and music. And I’ve had great and surprising Twitter conversations or retweets with the likes of Kevin Smith, Rosanne Cash (very cool!), and the aforementioned William Gibson, but it’s the organic circle of like-minded Tweeters that have been why I stay on Twitter.

This came especially to mind during the Vancouver Olympics Open Ceremony some months ago as I was following along on Twitter while watching the coverage. During that I realized I was a member of a fluid, dynamic tribe all doing the same thing at the same time (and having very similar impressions) and I was okay with that. I mean, I’m the least likely to “join” anything – it’s just not my thing, but what Twitter allows is for you to identify yourself by what you tweet and who you follow, and a “tribe” of like-minded people organically grows out of that and it’s not at all static or limiting. There is no joining, there is just you being you, and then you start running into people with similar interests. It is, in essence, nonlinear, connected, and enriching.

Now, I was also an early adopter of Facebook, and that has its uses, but to my mind what it’s missing is that nonlinear experience that Twitter encourages. I have 220 “Friends” on Facebook and they are 99% people I’ve actually met in real life. Family, classmates, former and current colleagues, etc. And I can share my pictures of my kids and I already know them, and they already know me, and where do you go with that? Even outside of family, I’ve known some of them for 35 years – and no offense – but as nice as they are and as much as they may have in common with me, they’re not that likely to surprise me or introduce me to new things or ideas. Often times, I may only have shared an experience with them – same school, same job, etc.

Whereas on Twitter I currently have almost 200 followers and am following around 300 people and only about 5% of them are people I’ve actually met and generally I’ve got no shared common experiences. However, the people I interact with there have introduced me to new things, new viewpoints, and other people that I share things in common with.Part of that is that while we may not have shared common experiences, I’ve found that there are experiences we have in common, e.g. Star Wars being a pivotal film, eating bacon being a transcendental experience, being confused by the latest episode of Lost, etc. and when we talk about them, it becomes a shared experience in a way.

I’m not saying one approach is better than another, but what I can say is that as my tweeting has increased, my time on Facebook has greatly diminshed. When I go back to Facebook now, it seems somehow dated and AOL-ish (not exactly surprising considering how my mother is on it *waves* Hi Mom!) . We used to call AOL “the Internet with training wheels” and to me at least, Facebook is “Social Networking with training wheels.” Even after hiding Farmville and Mafia Wars and what ever other app is clogging my feed at the moment, it doesn’t feel quite real.

Twitter, in comparison, feels more sincere in some way. Perhaps its the distillation of people’s thoughts in 140 characters, perhaps it’s a different style of user – whatever the case, there’s an immediacy and authenticity to what I read on Twitter that seems to be lacking from many other online interactions.

Is Twitter perfect? Hardly. It’s got spam. It’s got wacky nutjobs. It’s got everything that makes the Internet annoying on occasion, but what it also has is a reason to keep coming back. I don’t know how long it will last (and let’s face it, it won’t last forever – your mom and my mom will be out there tweeting soon enough), but if the best of the web and technology is at heart a sort of iterative design, I do think that Twitter is progress in the right direction.

I’d be interested in hearing what everyone else’s thoughts are, so please feel free to add your comments!

Memories of a friend

Megan Posing with Santa, Christmas '91

A week ago I marked the seventh year since the passing of a friend of mine – Megan Owen Barry. Megan was one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met — and here’s where I’ll offer a pre-emptive apology as there is a very good chance I may not get all my recollections 100-percent correct, but what seemed so vibrant in my twenties is a little less so these days. Anyway, as I was saying, Megan was fascinating – smart, beautiful, ambitious, and possessing a sense of herself and her place in the world that was remarkable. I’m pretty sure that my first memory of Megan was at a statewide Young Democrats meeting in the late ’80s, and as I remember it, I saw her walking down a hotel hallway outside some hospitality suite – big blond ’80s hair and a black and white animal print dress, looking more mid-twenties than the 15 or 16 she would have had to have been.

And while she was very pretty (distractingly so for many of my fellow male Young Dems) , what seemed to grab and hold everyone’s attention was how amazingly cool she seemed. Like she did this sort of thing every day. Like despite the fact she was at least three years younger than the majority of us, she not only deserved to be there as much as we did, but heck, she probably deserved it a little more. And here’s where I’ll let you in on something that’s not really a secret to anyone who knew Megan – she did deserve it a little more.

You see, while many people’s first impression of Megan was that she was attractive and confident, to think that looks and confidence were the summation of her would be to grossly underestimate her. She was, and remains, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. William & Mary undergrad / UVa Law School smart. If you had met her, you’d immediately start wondering what she was going to do, because whatever it was, she’d do it. You’d also likely not want to like her – someone that smart and that pretty can make enemies just by being herself. But you know what? Megan was nice! You could try and not like her, and hell, once you got to know her, you could try and be mad at her, but it just never seemed to work very well.

And with these skills and assets at her command, what occupied her focus? What captured her imagination? Politics. Starting at an early age, she proceeded to play the system with the same deft touch as a safe cracker. She served as a Senate Page in 1988 and in the Senate Clerks Office in ’95. She worked on campaigns and with local Democratic committees. And she was in the Young Democrats, which as you will recall, is where I said I met her.

Now the question is what could be the basis of a friendship between this scary-bright and beautiful young woman and myself? Honestly, I don’t really know. Back in those days I was just starting to get over debilitating shyness, was awkward looking at best, and altogether more the type of person whom you’d turn to and say “Oh, sorry, didn’t realize you were there.”

For whatever reason though, over a short period of months after that Young Democrats convention, Megan and I became friends. At the time, my mom was an up-and-comer as a State Delegate in the Virginia House of Delegates, and some warned me that Megan was obviously just being friends with me because of that (which is pretty insulting to me when you think about it). Nonetheless, we became friends. Best friends? No, I wouldn’t say that, but we were close. She introduced me to another friend of her’s and we’d all go out to movies or you know, normal friend stuff – eat pizza, talk, drive to cities all over the state going to Young Democrat meetings (everyone does that at that age, right?). I had the pleasure of introducing her to the old Frozen Dairy Bar and frozen custard (can’t be called ice cream because too much butterfat!).

It was a friendship that lasted for a number of years and initially survived Megan and I being on opposite sides of issues and campaigns from each other a number of times. Hell, she was a “grooms-maid” at my wedding — not having a lot of guy friends, I’d decided to not even try and be conformist and instead had my best man and two of my two best female friends on my side of the wedding party.

Back to the source of that friendship: looking back now I think what I offered Megan was a certain type of insight. As I said, I was generally pretty shy and while smart, Megan already had all of that she needed; so what type of insight could I provide? How to persuade. How to convince. How to argue. Especially with the fiery idealism of youth (and in spite of my social anxiety), I spent a good part of my time in the Young Democrats having discussions (some many would say arguments) over the issues of the day. I was anti-capital punishment, pro-labor, pro-choice, and had very strong opinions on pretty much everything – something that has obviously not changed one iota since then <grin>. Anyway,point being, if you didn’t agree with me, I’d verbally brow-beat you into submission or go down in flames trying.

So what leads me to conclude that this is what initially made Megan decide “Hey, I think I’ll hang out with Jason occasionally”? In all the years I knew Megan, I think I could count the number of times I heard her get into an ideological or issue-focused discussion on the fingers of one hand. At heart I think she was a pragmatist, which is fine if you want to govern, but not so good if you ever want to get elected — Megan had plans. I honestly think it may have been the first conversation she and I ever had – she asked me “So, do you think you’re ever going to want to run for office?” As soon as I mentioned that I might run for the House of Delegates some day, she’d already moved on to planning when we could both run for the House of Delegates in the same year. I laughed, but she just looked at me.

She was serious. She was not even old enough to vote, and she was already planning to make public office her life’s work – and not in a daydreamy way, but in a very practical and pragmatic way. As I mentioned, she had a plan. And I think what intrigued her about me was how, shy and awkward as I was, I still tried (and occasionally succeeded) in persuading folks to my point of view on something. That’s not to say that Megan wasn’t passionate about politics or ideas or didn’t know how to argue — far from it. She was fascinated by the machinery of politics and governing, she was deeply interested in the politicians themselves and what made them tick. But she was not an ideologue, and she knew she had to at least be able to talk like one to get elected  someday. Also, I think for a number of reasons she disliked conflict. I remember talking to her once  about it and having to explain how I could argue for hours with someone and not take any of it personally.

For various reasons, mostly extremely stupid now in hindsight, Megan and I had a falling out in the mid-’90s, which means that just as she was coming into her own and becoming whom she was meant to be, I was no longer in contact with her.

It was just after Valentines Day 2003 when I got a call from a friend letting me know that Megan had ended her own life. In some ways, my life has never been the same since. I know that may seem overly dramatic, but it’s true. If Megan, who had been planning and working towards some future she envisioned her whole life, could decide to end it all, what kind of sense could the world every make to the rest of us?

I’ve had relatives die and other friends gone well before their time, but Megan’s death more than others I’ve faced made me realize that nothing is certain in this world. Since then I’ve come to terms with that fact and even to welcome the random nature of the universe – if for no other reason than trying to fight the good fight is its own reward; not the accolades that might come later or the fact it gets you one step closer to a goal. It’s doing what’s important now that brings you satisfaction and happiness, and if you do it right, that “now” extends endlessly in front of you and takes you where you need to go.

Sadly I was unable to attend her funeral, and between the nature of her death and the falling out we’d had years before, I’ve always felt that in many ways I failed her as a friend. Of course, I also realize that nothing I could have done would have changed what happened, but that doesn’t make it easier.

Throughout the years since her death, I’ve thought about her and wondering where she would have been on her path if she was still with us. By age thirty, she’d become a lawyer, a lobbyist, a wife, and a step-mother (all of which she worked as hard at as ever). She would now be closer to 40 than 30 – a seasoned veteran in the halls of power. She would have absolutely loved the 2008 presidential election, and I wanted her there with all my heart to see it, even though she would have certainly backed a different candidate in the primaries than my own 🙂  In this age where we have Sarah Palin (looks + confidence) and Hillary Clinton (intelligence + confidence) whom have had so much success, I have to believe the world would have been beating a path to Megan’s door (intelligence + looks + confidence ). I’d like to think that by now, she’d be using something she picked up or learned from me in a candidate debate and wiping the floor with her opponent.

And now that  I have my own daughter and am casting about for positive role models for her, I miss Megan all the more. She wasn’t perfect, and there were times when she drove me crazy, but she was the type of person who changed the orbit of other people’s lives for the better and I can think of no better goal for anyone than that, and I can think of no better thought to end this on.

Miss you Megan!

I’ve been meaning to write this piece for awhile. It’s been repeatedly written out (or at least outlined)  in my head but then always erased – probably a sign I shouldn’t even try, but it reoccurs to me often enough that I thought it only fair I see where it takes me. For those of you who also knew Megan, I hope you are like me and will enjoy the memories of her life. For those of you who didn’t know Megan, I hope you just take this as a reminder to value those you love and never take them for granted.

Solution to One of the World’s Problems, #1 and #2

So I’ve been thinking. I saw the wonderful results of this past election and that damn Prop. 8 getting approved in Cali is completely ruining my Obama-change we can believe in – this time its going to be different-buzz. I mean come on — did they really have to ruin it for the rest of us?

. . . and whom do you mean by “they” the little voices in my head ask? The damn Mormons of course!

Now before anyone calls me a religious bigot (oh sweet delicious irony!) or worse, let me be clear. First — I really mean the LDS Church itself and not individual Mormons. Second — I’ve got some history with these folks.

(quickest possible synopsis: my great-great-great grandfather became a Mormon, left England and a wife and two children, and came to Utah where he immediately married two very nice young women from outside Torino, Italy, who had also become Mormons and headed for Utah. Which made three concurrent wives . . .Blah, blah, blah . . . about 28 kids. . . excommunicated and reinstated . . .  generations pass, and then thank god, my grandfather left the church and helped ensure future generations like myself would never be held in its embrace. Add into that my maternal grandmother who went through seventy versions of hell living and trying to raise a family in Salt Lake City as a non-Mormon, a mom and sister born in Salt Lake, AND just because my life is so rich in irony, my wife’s family was at one time Mormon. <- I said it was “quickest possible,” not “quick!”)(Oh and one more thing — my wife’s brother and his wife are both Mormon, and without reservation, they are two of the nicest, most truly spiritual, and “good” people I could ever hope to meet — so as I said, this is more about some of the leaders of the LDS Church, rather than something against any individuals — especially those Mormons outside Utah — they’re completely different!)

So back to my original diatribe — for those that don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, the LDS Church sent out the call for donations to defeat Prop. 8 in California, after being approached by the San Francisco Catholic Archbishop. And how much of a difference could a religion make that was mostly centered in a completely different state that was completely demographically different than California?

“Mormon church members undertook a perhaps unprecedented mobilization, contributing an estimated 40 percent of the individual donations made to the Yes on 8’s $30 million-plus campaign.” From the San Francisco Chronicle

It’s difficult to know what was worse: the outlandish ads filled with lies looking to stir up fears of GLBTs “converting” children, overthrowing civilization, etc., or the fact that such an unprecedented effort on behalf of a church (two churches really, with the Catholics thrown in) was aimed at direct involvement in government and elections, which flies directly in the face of the intent of this country’s founders and at least the spirit of the federal statutes that cover this.

The Sean Hannitys of the world point out that this wasn’t the LDS church itself, as it donated no money itself (as it could not in the face of existing laws on the books), and that this was just an upwelling of support from individuals of the Mormon faith – to the tune of $20 million. This is a bogus explanation as that’s not how Mormons work — and again, I’m talking about the LDS Church and “Utah Mormons” as those  of us who have come to know them call them, including many Mormons I know from Virginia, Washington, and California).

This is a religion and a state that has the beehive as one of its most important icons — individual action is not encouraged. No, this was no spontaneous response from people of conscience — this was an orchestrated and under-the-radar campaign to get the money to California. Some may ask why the LDS Church, still smarting from reaction to their now-abandoned official practices and doctrines of bigotry against people of color, would choose to pick on another group. The answer is “2012.”

Mitt Romney would have had a real shot at the GOP nomination this year except for one thing — he’s Mormon. He wasn’t a conservative purist, but neither was McCain, so it wasn’t that. No, the Christian Right does not count Latter-day Saints as Christians, and believe me, the LDS Church really, really wants a Mormon President — so what to do? “Hey, I know — help bash the gays in California and the Christian Right may actually stop treating us like lepers and our guy can get the nod in 2012!” — or at least that’s what I imagine the dialog was like.

So now that I’ve described the events that took place, I think one thing has become clear –this is One of the World’s Problems and the first one I will solve. I’ll try and get to others later, as time, inspiration, and smart-assedeness allows.

First – define the problem: Surprisingly, I don’t think the problem is the Mormon Church. Honestly, people can believe what they want — no skin off my nose. In the same vein, I doubt anyone is going to change their attitudes on those in the GLBT community, and if they want to live bigoted, closed-minded lives, that’s their right. No, the real problem is this: The location of the Mormon Church and most Mormons in the U.S.

Solution?

This is the beautiful part, my solution is not only a Solution to One of the World’s Problems, it’s a Solution to TWO of the World’s Problems!

[drum roll . . . . ] Swap Tibet and Utah! Your jaw has dropped, you’re thinking I’ve lost my mind . . . but follow my logic.

  1. Mormons love to send missionaries to other countries, so what could be better than sending ALL  OF THEM IN UTAH to another country?!
  2. Their populations are almost exactly the same! Utah has 2,550,063 people (as of 2006) and the Tibetan Autonomous Region population from 2000 was 2,616,329. It’s like we were meant to do this!
  3. Tibet does not look like it is going to get its deserved independence from China anytime soon, and it doesn’t look like we’ll get our deserved independence from the LDS any time soon either — so why not trade?
  4. The LDS Church can get a huge foothold in a country of more than a billion people that values conformity and that has a government that not only won’t allow gays to marry, they execute them — it’s a perfect match!
  5. All the Buddhists still in Tibet or that have been part of the Tibetan diaspora to India and such can finally have a safe home in Utah where they can live and practice their faith freely.
  6. Lhasa, Tibet is both cooler and wetter than Salt Lake City Utah, so the Mormons won’t be able to complain, and Utah has a lot fewer illegal Chinese governments, so the Tibetans will be happy.
  7. Mormons and Tibetans both have a cultural history in which the characteristic form of marriage is polygamy. For Tibetans, it was polyandry (a form of polygamy with one wife, multiple husbands), while for the Mormons it was polygyny (one husband, multiple wives). It’s not an officially sanctioned practice in either place anymore, but does go on behind the scenes. This would allow us to still use many of our existing Utah jokes with just very minor changes.
  8. Now, while its true that some Buddhists believe homosexuality is “wrong,” many more don’t care, as how you live your life is your responsibility. I’ll take that over the stance of the LDS Church any day.

Now, you are probably asking “But how could such a thing happen?” or ” How would that work?” — my answer, of course, is that as I’ve already come up with the solution — I’ll leave it to someone else to work out the details. Oh, but I would suggest some gold tablets and a cloning experiment involving Joseph Smith as a sort of a strawman.

Portrait of a Poll Worker

So, as you’re walking to your polling place on Election Day (I’m not giving you the option — just do it), you’ll pass by some individuals hanging out front. They will politely offer you some literature and you will react in one of the following ways:

  • You will politely take it or refuse
  • You will utter something along the lines of “Hell no!” “Not from that party a**hole!” “Don’t you people have something better to do?” “Why do you hand that stuff out? If someone doesn’t know who they’re going to vote for by now, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote!” or something equally polite and/or sensitive.
  • You will make every effort to not make eye contact, but if you do, you’ll pretend you don’t speak English, offer an embarrassed shrug, and hurry past.

I’ve been one of those people standing out front for somewhere around 25 years. I was working polling places before I was old enough to drive or big enough to ride most amusement park rides (so for you smart asses out there, yes, that means before I was 25).

It started out as an obligation. My mom or dad would be working a polling place and they’d drag me with them. As I got a little older (around 14 or so I think), I would work the outside of the poll while my father was inside taking down names so that other volunteers could call the folks who hadn’t voted yet. And then I started doing it on my own.

Pretty much from the beginning of my mom’s career, I had my own polling place shifts. I did the fire station in Annandale, I did St. Albans Church (which I’ve now been working on and off again for about 20 years), I did Sleepy Hollow, Baileys, and Belevedere Elementary Schools — and churches, community centers, and schools all over Fairfax County. I always seemed to have pretty good luck drawing polling places where my mother’s opponents were working as well.

And in all this, I discovered some interesting things.

Old couples like to vote together — in fact, some couples I met had been voting together for more than five decades — and some of them were doing it with the stated intention of canceling their spouse’s vote. Of course, many were voting the same way, but it was the ones that went in bragging about how their vote was going to cancel out their spouse’s that always fascinated me. Did they really do it for just that reason? Did they really vote the way they said they were going to? Or, as I understand a little better myself now having been married for almost 15 years, is it just a little married-life joke that lives on as proof of your commitment to each other?

Some people don’t know who or what to vote for before they show up at the polls. It’s true, and its not just those stupid bond questions or ballot initiatives that most people never read — we’re talking state and federal offices here! But considering that most people don’t vote , especially here in Virginia, where (because of how local, state, and federal elections are scheduled) we have elections every year — can anyone really complain? I mean isn’t a vote decided on at the last minute still better than no vote at all? Especially since most people vote for candidates for silly reasons, i.e. the taller candidate, who they’d like to have a beer with, or whom they are related to.

In fact, here’s one of my best stories about both working at the polls and on why people vote the way they do: It was 1987 and my mom was running for re-election for the first time to the Va. House of Delegates. Her opponent was a local businessman named Strode Brent (how’s that for a politically unfriendly name?). He was basically plucked from obscurity and thrown up as the “pro-business” candidate.

Anyway, point was he was not a “natural” politician by any means and I was working the polls against him at Ravenwood precinct in Fairfax (polling place was my high school – JEB Stuart). A woman walked up and I gave her my best spiel: “Hi! Would you like a Democratic sample ballot? And I hope you’ll vote for my mom, Leslie Byrne!” (I was damn cute delivering this line!). She cuts me off and gives me a sort of “Humpf!” sound and seeing the Republican stalwart Mr. Brent right there, she walks up to him. “Hello Mr. Brent! I remember you — you came and walked through my neighborhood a few weeks ago” she says.

Strode stops — I mean he literally “stopped” — just seemed to go through a mental reboot for a second and he replies “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you.” The woman turns and walks into the polling place, only to return a few minutes later, and says, sotto voce, as she’s walking past me “I voted for your mom.”

Democracy in action!

And I’ll be out there again tomorrow, at least for a short evening shift. It might be raining, and some people will be grumpy because of the weather, or the wait, or just because it’s what they do on Election Day as they play the selfless martyr sacrificing their time to come and vote. But they’ll get no sympathy from me. Because I’ve also seen the 96-year old great grandmother come to the polling place, refuse the offer of the election worker coming to take her vote at the curb, and make her way into the polling place on her walker, at a slow and dignified pace. And I’ve seen the World War II vet come in, proudly displaying a flag lapel pin and a number of discrete medals on his jacket to cast his ballot. And I’ve seen the young immigrant couple bringing in their children to show them how this is done in the country they chose to live in, rather than the one where they were born.

And that’s probably one of the real reasons I do this year after year. Because even though I’m a natural cynic, I can’t help but enjoy seeing this play out every year, bearing witness in a way for each person that comes in to vote. And it’s not some schmaltzy “Oh, we’re a great country coming together to do this!” No, it’s more along the lines of “I will make sure my voice is heard, even if I don’t think my candidate or issue will win.”

As Thomas Jefferson said, “The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then.” And what is voting but a ritualized resistance to government, or formalized rebellion?

So whether you’re voting for McCain or Obama, when you see those volunteer poll workers in front of your local polling place, give them a smile even if you don’t take their literature. They are there for the same reasons you are — to overthrow our current government and put in a new one. We may not all agree on the details, but in a conspiracy like this, that’s pretty much always the case 🙂

Hopes and Guesses

So, I started supporting Obama back in late January/early February of this year. I wasn’t that enamored of any of the candidates on the Democratic side, and since Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt weren’t running on the GOP side, I hadn’t decided to back anyone yet. However, I started hearing more and more about the Obama campaign’s organizational skills and how he was fairing in the face of the oncoming Clinton-naut. He had more offices in more states, he was spending his money well, and to my admittedly jaded ears, his message of “hope” and “change” sounded genuine (something I believe I developed an ear for over the years). So I did some more research and talked to some more folks and ended up voting for him during the Virginia primary with nary a regret or backward glance.

Since then, I’ve become more and more impressed with him both as a candidate and a human being. Now, as many know, I’ve been involved in politics on some fairly intimate levels for going on 28 years now (that’s right, I was 10 when I started — go “Carter/Mondale Re-election Campaign!”). I’ve met Presidents, Vice-Presidents, Governors, Senators, a Congressperson or two (Hi Mom!), state legislators and right on down to the local county supervisors and school board. I not only know politicians, I’ve grown up with (and been raised by) them. I don’t say this to impress, after all no one knows better than I how ‘normal’ 99.9% of these people are. I’m merely establishing that my “oh, wow!” threshold is fairly freaking high. And the fact that my own mother is cited by many across the Commonwealth as a pretty damn good speaker should be taken into account as well.

So when I say Obama is the most transformational national candidate we’ve seen in almost 50 years, its with some amount of experience and knowledge backing that up. And what a lot of people seem to be interested in right now is what that means for an Obama White House and the nation. While it’s impossible to know, I can make some guesses.

Nastiness ahead

The mud-slinging you’re seeing from the batshit-crazy right wingers is not going to magically disappear on Nov. 5th. You think William Jefferson Clinton had it rough? Hah! You ain’t seen nothing yet. And just to be clear “batshit-crazy right wingers” are not the same thing as thoughtful conservatives who I can agree to disagree with (I know a surprising number of them, as a matter of fact). No your batshit-crazy right winger (BCRW) is someone who actually believes that Obama is a secret black-nationalist Muslim Socialist who will eat your baby. Unfortunately, there are quite a few of those as well, and they’re basically going to be in a “The End Times are coming M*F*, so no holding back now” mindset once Obama places his hand on a bible as he swears the oath of office.

The good news, as Hillary and McCain can attest, you come after this guy and you just end of looking silly and pathetic. Reagan may have been the “Teflon” President, but Obama is going to be some-nano-technology-nonstick-material-they-don’t-even-have-a-name-for-yet President. Hell, he’ll probably inspire someone to invent it and then they’ll name it after him. Should sound something like “Obamamantium.”

One Party Rule – ah, yeah, I don’t think so

Oh, and this “one party” govermental rule that the GOP is trying to scare people with now — not going to happen. While its true it looks like the Democrats will have control over the White House and Congress, this is not equitable to GOP control over everything. One party rule with the GOP = bad, one party rule with the Dems = good. Why the double standard? Because the GOP, even at its most fractured, finger-pointing, and directionless low, is still more organized and able to move in lock step than the Democrats on their most organized day ever.

By our very nature, and at our best, Democrats are a lose amalgamation of people with similar interests working towards a roughly common goal. In reality, that translates into the situation where if you had 100 Democrats locked into a room and you required 51 of them to work together to get out, you’d have a room full of 100 Democratic skeletons. Sorry to disappoint Limbaugh and his ilk (though if they support Palin, perhaps “ilk” should be “elk”?), but Obama may be “liberal” according to the GOP and the MSM (it’s funny, I’ve never seen him at any of the secret meetings), he will manage the country from the center, and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi are going to have their hands too full with just trying to keep people in line to be able to muster anything like the overwhelming force that would be needed to enact any real kind of sweeping change. So relax — as Will Rogers famously said — I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.

And if I’m wrong, the GOP has until the next mid-term elections in 2010 to get their act together and make their own push for change. But you know what, I don’t think it will work. I may be too closely imitating Charlie Brown trying to kick that football, but I think the Democrats can stop repeating past mistakes and really move in a new direction this time, and I genuinely believe it will be “post-partisan” as only a President Obama can make it.

The Obama Administration

Reagan and Obama will be bookends on this most recent period in our history. If you look at Ford and Carter as a sort of historical caesura after Nixon and Watergate, Reagan was the start of the new “modern era.” After his two terms in office and the decades between then and now, people have really sort of forgotten that he was elected almost entirely due to an atavistic pulling away from Carter and his scent of failure, rather than any support for Reagan. People talked of Carter at the time as “the worst President ever.” Gas was expensive, the economy was in the crapper, and people were simply afraid — sound familiar?

But while Reagan and Obama share some common stylistic and historical themes, the differences are pretty stark too. Reagan’s administration was the product of his cabinet coming up with ideas and Reagan selling them to the American people (much like he had sold cigarettes on TV, decades before). Reagan was an actor (notice I didn’t say “just an actor”) and while he was clever, he was not an intellectual heavyweight. Obama on the other hand brings together the gifts of the orator with the gifts of the intellectual ( Bill Clinton was supposed to have filled that role, but he also brought his own moral failings which soured the whole thing). Do I believe Obama is perfect? Hardly — but I do trust him to be aware of his own weaknesses and to ward against them (something President Clinton never succeeded at).

So on the day after inauguaration, will it suddenly be “morning in America” again? God, I hope not! But what I do hope for is that my fellow Democrats will not expect Obama to be a panacea for all their ills (real and imagined) and will actually listen to him when he says we will need to make compromises to move this country forward. And I hope my opponenents (and friends) on the right will give Obama the benefit of the doubt and be willing to come together like we did in those days after 9/11.

We can either complain about our government, or we can fix it.

Sort of sad that Bush’s own presidency is the sort of disaster that requires that sort of response, but I think its true. Not so much for his policies (thought those have been pretty god awful) as for how his administration has poisoned the well of Washington. Its been a long time since working for the government was regarded as anything other than a backwards welfare system for people who couldn’t make it in the private sector. And while Reagan and his running “against Washington” started that particular ball rolling, Bush/Cheney took it to the next level, and I hope it will be Obama who marks the change of direction in the historical pendulum. JFK inspired an entire generation into government service, just as FDR and WWII had done earlier in the 20th century — its time the best and the brightest heard and answered their nation’s call to service.

When I decided to back Barack earlier this year, it was because I honestly believed he was the only one that was idealistic enough to believe that he could bring the change we need, smart enough to do it well, and a good enough leader to get the country behind him (other than the BCRW mentioned above). Everything I’ve seen from he and his campaign has deepened that conviction. As I said before, he’s not perfect, but I firmly believe that four (and hopefully eight) years from now, we’ll all be able to look back on ourselves and Nov.4th and know without any regret that we made the right decision in electing him.

Every Day is Election Day

It is an often repeated conversation with my wife — she hates shopping and I enjoy it. There seem to be a number of reasons for this breaking of gender stereotypes. My wife was the second oldest of six kids and had fewer luxuries growing up than I did — shopping was a painful exercise in stretching a dollar to cover three times as many kids as my family had to.

Certainly during my very early childhood, I have memories of my folks struggling with money as every young couple does, and while they’ve never been rich, much of my childhood passed with a remarkable lack of ‘want.’ In addition, I was almost 5 years younger than my sister and I have a great many memories of just my mom and me going shopping together – my dad at work, and my sister doing whatever the heck she was doing. Most times it was for just grocery shopping, but there were lots of trips to the local mall and other stores.

So from an early age, I had no real reason to dislike shopping, while my wife experienced the exact opposite. But I think it goes deeper than that, and while my mom took me on the most shopping trips, I think my Dad can claim credit for some of why I enjoy it.

First, for those who don’t know my father, he is a man of very strong ideas and ideals (completely unlike me, obviously). At various times, from various sources, I believe I’ve heard him called ‘tenacious,’ ‘tough,’ and ‘pushy.’ — Adjectives by the way, that have been applied to both my parents, sometimes in my daily newspaper. Anyway, while I got my taste and my aesthetic sense from my mother, I got a big dose of my sense of justice from my father.

Wait — “justice” — what does that have to do with shopping? Well, it’s like this — every day is Election Day. When I don’t shop at Safeway, its not just because I think they have lousy produce or high prices, it’s because they actively keep their workers from organizing into unions. Why did I grow up shopping at Giant? Because they were a locally-owned family business that was union-friendly (oh, those were the days!). Levi Strauss, Apple, McDonalds — good! Wal-Mart, Coors, and foreign cars — bad!

I was in college before I realized that everyone didn’t shop like this (though I did have a girlfriend in college who made me look like an unthinking greedy, grasping zombie consumer, but that’s another story). And this is what I learned from both my parents, but mostly my father — decisions matter, even (or maybe especially) the small ones.

Do I ever buy or not buy something completely based on some political litmus test? No, not really. But it does play a large role in my decision making process, and there are some stores (I’m looking at you, certain Arkansas-based mega retailer), that I’ve been forced to step foot in when I was with others, but they’ve never received a dime of my money and they never will until their corporate behavior changes.

So how does this tie into my love and my wife’s loathing of shopping? Well, I think in part, it is due to the fact that when I’m shopping, I believe what I’m doing matters. Part of that is just the simple is-this-good-for-/me/my family/my wallet/ decision tree that most people use in one form or another, but I add on a /my planet/ to that. Not necessarily in a ‘green’ way, though that does play a part, but more in a “these are the things I care about and how does this jibe with that?” way.

People will contribute to political or advocacy groups, run in charity races, and stick bumper stickers on their cars, and then turn around and buy products from companies that work actively against what they believe in.  The same people who buy organic produce at their local farmer’s market because it’s “good for the planet” will drive that produce home in a foreign car that is produced in a country without basic labor or environmental standards, sipping coffee from a mega-retailer that, no matter how hard they try, by their very existence and business model do harm to the environment.To me, at least, that seems a form a insanity.

Am I somehow perfect in this respect? No, not even close and no one really can be. But I generally am at least aware of the compromises I’ve made when making a particular purchase.

My father probably doesn’t even think of what he’s doing as a “way” of doing anything and he’ll probably think its silly that I’m calling attention to it. But both my parents seemed to have been very much in agreement over the years on what or where to buy. And while there were some things that one or the other might have liked, they kept each other ‘honest’ in a way, and by doing so they both impressed on me the true “value of a dollar.” Not just as a means of economic exchange, but as a tool to shape the world.

And believe it or not, when I go out and I’m walking down an aisle at the grocery store, that’s one of the things I’m doing — I’m shaping the world. And as I always ask my wife, who doesn’t enjoy that?

This is hardly a new idea obviously, but in this country where consumerism is nearly a national and sacred sport, it almost never gets applied to this area of our lives. Perhaps a small Indian gentleman with impeccable taste in loincloths put it best:

Be the change that you want to see in the world.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

And I think he would have agreed that should be true whether you’re deciding how to vote on Election Day or deciding how to buy a new TV.

Finger pointing

Okay, so we’re nearing the end of the presidential election, and with McCain’s camp already starting the finger-pointing, I thought I’d offer some observations. Why am I qualified? Well, primarily I’m a Democrat living in Virginia and have worked on campaigns essentially all my life. And as a Democrat living in Virginia and having worked on local, state, and national races, I’m somewhat familiar with the practice of finger-pointing following an election loss — we’re really good at that!

McCain’s advisers and GOP operatives all are pointing at each other, the “liberal, elitist” media, and evil-intentioned socialist gremlins (okay, so I’m guessing at that last one). But what was the real issue? Well, as many with experience in this sort of thing might guess, to lose this badly requires more than one issue. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • John McCain stopped being John McCain — McCain of 2000 through 2006 and before was a guy I had tremendous respect for, even while disagreeing with him on most issues. McCain of 2007-2008 started out as an apologist for the Bush administration, then it went downhill from there. It seems he would rather win an election than stand by his principles, and once the voters sense that, they stop trusting you (see Gore, 2000).
  • A misplaced sense of entitlement. Hillary should probably take this one into account to, at least in general. How much arrogance does it take to (at the age of 72!) pick someone completely unqualified for your VP choice and then complain when people start analyzing how well, or not, her experience has prepared her for the VP’s number one priority — being ready to be President. How much arrogance to not even bother vetting your choice before announcing it? And how much arrogance to expect to win just because you think the other guy is so bad? Voters want to vote for a candidate, not against the other guy. That kind of thing locks up your base, but doesn’t pull in the independents. As John McCain and Hillary Clinton discovered, even if you think its obvious that you should win, you still have to convince everyone else of this as well.
  • Really poor execution of campaigning fundamentals. This is again something that both McCain and Clinton were guilty of. While each decried the lack of experience of Obama, his field organization ran circles around theirs. This was a more profound failure for McCain though as the vaunted GOP voter management techniques seemed to be no where to be found. Obama fields offices have turned up everywhere in a seemingly Starbucks-like way, and they are all largely staffed by volunteers. McCain’s field offices are far fewer, staffed by a few paid staff and some diehard volunteers. It’s not just that the standard GOP volunteer base didn’t come out, McCain for all of his running to the right seemed never to give them a reason to come in. I believe I’ve read two or three articles all in the last week (like this one) comparing different reporter’s experiences in visiting Obama and McCain offices — now I’ve worked on a number of losing campaigns and in the final days of those, I’ve never seen anything like what is being described in McCain’s offices.
  • Now, to almost wrap this up: a 90% voting with Bush record, a negative campaign that turned more people off than brought them in, and a faltering economy (though I think the impact of this last one is negligible).
  • And finally the one decision he and his campaign made that, if it had been made differently, could have completely changed his prospects on Nov. 4: Sarah Palin. This wasn’t just a maverick-style gamble — in gambling you should have some expectation that your bet will win. This was a jump-off-the-cliff-and-hope-for-the-best decision where McCain (as every great victim of hubris does) starts believing his own propaganda and figured even if he picked someone like Palin to lock up his base, he was still a maverick and people would love him for it. What he forgot, is that a maverick is nothing but a successful eccentric, and once the weakness shows and success becomes a more remote possibility, you instantly go from being maverick to erratic.

If McCain had picked Lieberman (whom I despise) or Romney (whom I just sort of vaguely dislike and feel sorry for), he would have seen as a strong “maverick” who bucked the right wing of his party and the moderate middle would have swarmed to him in droves. Instead he picked Palin, which basically announced “I am a weak and ineffectual leader of my own party and need to pick this kook from Alaska to shore up my base.” Honestly, most independents were just waiting for McCain to give them a reason to vote for them. They weren’t ready for Obama, and were fully open to McCain of 2000 and the Straight-Talk Express to whisk them away from the past 8 years. Instead, Obama maintained his cool and McCain acted like an old man presented with too many options and unable to deal with complexity (of his own campaign, the economy, or just about anything else).

I still have some respect for McCain, nurtured like a flame from candle that is about to burn down. He served his country admirably, he was someone who managed to speak truth to the American people, and “way back in the day” before this latest round of craziness started showed the most admirable trait in a public figure — he didn’t take himself too seriously. Now, he actively seeks to besmirch the reputations of others, he has run one of the most negative and untruthful campaigns I’ve ever seen, and basically seems to have turned his back on what seemed to be heartfelf and sincere beliefs. In short, he has become everything that George W. Bush is and was to him back during the 2000 campaign.

He might have deserved to be President. He certainly deserved to be a well-respected candidate for the office. And now sadly, after embracing something that he professed “disgust and revulsion” for (when referring to the Bush attacks of 2000), he deserves to lose and really has no one to blame but himself.