This Blog – Not Quite Dead Yet

I come today in acknowledgement of the fact I hardly post here anymore. There are several reasons for this:

Politics – I’m thoroughly disillusioned by politics at the national level. Aside from some very welcome movement on marriage equality, I’ve very disappointed on my core issues – civil liberties, transparency, drone strikes, etc. I’ve also seen 95% of the Bush tax cuts continued and acceptance of austerity by both parties even though that has been shown to be a failure in the UK and elsewhere it has been tried. The Senate keeps shooting down filibuster reform and my Democratic senator rejects universal background check for firearms. These things stay stable regardless of party. I will continue to vote in all elections, but I’m tired of blogging about issues where there appears to be a strong elite consensus. That might change in the future, but I don’t know when.

Photography – As a user of Flickr, Tumblr is a way better platform to blog my photos as I can queue them through Flickr. If Flickr ever allows me to queue to WordPress, I might do more photography here. But until then, just the rare shot from my tablet.

Book reviews – I got turned on to Good Reads. When I read Alaska themed books, I’ll post reviews here. Sharing cool links. I have Facebook and Tumblr for that.

Library writing – I spun off writing on library topics to a library Tumblr so I could divorce library writing from my politics. Lately I haven’t been too active there either.

So, I’m not sure what content I’ve got left for here. Part of me thinks I should just shut this puppy down. But I fear if I do that, I’ll have a perfect post for Alaskan Librarian the day after I close up shop. So I’ll leave it open for now. Hope you are all doing well.

Andrew Sullivan Dish Moving to Membership Model

The Dish, a group blog headed up by Andrew Sullivan, is going to a membership model on February 1, 2013. People will be able to read ten free articles a month and then would be asked to pay $19.99/year. They will allow free access to links from blogs, so bloggers like myself won’t have to worry about throwing you into a paywall.

I like this model and plan to subscribe.

This might surprise my small but loyal core of regular readers. You might remember that I blasted the Juneau Empire for a similar plan back in November.

What’s different here is that the Dish offers a lot of content and added value not readily available elsewhere, such as:

  • Real time blogging of important political events
  • In depth analysis of budget issues
  • Clear headed cultural and media commentary
  • A very consistent anti-torture perspective
  • A refusal to give politicians free passes merely because they’re of the same party or faction as the writers.

This sort of perspective and analysis I’ll happily pay for. What I’ve seen in the Juneau Empire, at least up until recently was a mix of commodity AP journalism (even when concerning Alaska politics) and local content largely available elsewhere (KTOO, KINY, etc). So far I’m not seeing the added value.

If you haven’t given the Dish a try, I hope you will. If you can afford it, I hope you’ll subscribe.

Sometimes it’s the little things that count and annoy

Since most of my readers appear to use RSS feeds to consume content from this blog, you might not have noticed that the front page of my blog looked weird ever since I posted Three Books on Cooper Landing.

I noticed it a few posts after, but only got around to fixing it till Saturday, May 28th. To isolate the problem, I reduced the number of posts that appeared on my front page until the front page looked normal. Then I added back the next post and confirmed that the display looked odd only when that post was displaying. That turned out to be the Cooper Landing post.

WordPress’ default is WYSIWYG, but you can easily switch to editing HTML. I did so and decided that in the book citations I copied over from WorldCat there were some unmatched <div> tags. These tags without an obvious home probably somehow latched onto the invisible CSS that powers my WordPress theme and started messing with my display, throwing my Flickr widget down to the bottom of the page.

I removed all the <div> tags in the Cooper Landing post and all was well. <div> tags have also been given me headaches at work. Those headaches are going away as I learn more basic CSS but I’m still annoyed that I keep running into problems that are as obscure as a single </div> tag throwing everything off.

Alaskan Librarian by e-mail

I’m testing out a WordPress feature for a colleague. Specifically, the ability to receive new posts by e-mail. We want to see how the e-mails are formatted. I didn’t want to do this for his production blog, so I’m doing it here.

If you are a site visitor, you should see a e-mail subscription link in the upper right hand corner. If you’re not a registered WordPress user, it will ask you for your e-mail address. If you are a registered WordPress user, all you have to do is click on the link. Either way, you’ll start to see my posts by e-mail.

Leave me a comment if you think this is a useful feature or have feedback on the entries by e-mail feature. I’m going to post a few more entries tonight so that I’ll have something to look at in my inbox.

WordPressers – Are you intimidated on login?

I sometimes feel a little intimidated when I login to WordPress and I wonder if others at wordpress.com ever feel the same way. I’m writing this on November 12th. When I signed in WordPress announced that 52,503,183 words had been written that day. How could I possibly add anything meaningful to that? Do you ever feel that way? I never feel intimated enough not to post, but sometimes it gives me pause.

Pseudonyms and Anonymous Sourcing

While looking over the 49(!) comments on my posting defending free speech the other day, I decided there were two topics I wanted to treat in a blog entry rather than in comments.

Pseudonyms

Some of the comments revolved around the propriety of outing Gryphen’s secret identity with some saying it was unethical to do so and others claiming that the mere act of writing on important public issues while using a pseudonym was itself unethical.

My contribution to the topic was:

I made no comment on his loss of anonymity. I’m not blaming that on anyone. My personal feeling is that adopting anonymity gives one a false sense of security. In the age of the internet, particularly when blogging against someone with devoted followers, any “secret identity” is bound to be uncovered. That’s why I blog under my own name. I don’t mind others trying to hide as long as they use a consistent handle, I just don’t think they’ll keep their identity under wraps for an extended period of time.

I’d like to talk about this concept a little more. Writing under a pseudonym or pen name on political topics has a long and distinguished history going back to the Federalist Papers when Founders Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison wrote under the pen name of Publius in the late 1700s.

I believe that from a speech standpoint a pseudonym provides accountability. A person writes under her pen name and if called on misuse of facts or making stuff up can’t hide behind the “I didn’t say that” that anonymous blog commenters can.

So I don’t think using a pen name is itself bad for public discourse. If people feel like they need to hide, I’m open to that. I’m not especially for outing people. Outing people is a form of Ad hominem attack to me. You don’t care about their facts or sources, you are arguing the writing shouldn’t be trusted because of the person hiding behind the pseudonyms.

In a few specialized cases, this could be legitimate. For example, it would be worthwhile to know that a blog purporting to be from an American Jihadi was in fact written by Dick Cheney to try and scare us. Or if a blog purporting to be that of a homeless man trying to get by on the streets of New York was actually being written by George Soros. But unless the outing is to show the writer isn’t in a position to know what he’s writing about, it’s not useful or conducive to public debate.

Having said the above, I stand by my comment that while potentially desirable, pen names are not sustainable in the age of the Internet. There are too many places where you can make a slip, too much public information and increasingly, too many people with an ax to grind with too much time on their hands to maintain secret identities for long.  If this country started contemplating a new Constitution, any politicians daring to write under Publius, “Joe the Plumber” or any other pseudonym would be outed faster than you could say “anonymous staffer.”

Anonymous Sourcing

Another issue that came up in comments was the appropriateness of using anonymous sources. My feeling is that except for one circumstance, anonymous sourcing is worthless at best and evil at worst. It’s bad whether its a blogger, the New York Times or Fox News. The path to the Iraq Occupation was paved with anonymous sourcing about fictious WMD. When it’s simply testimony, I think anonymous sourcing should be avoided for a number of reasons, but chiefly because it gives us no basis for determining the veracity of what’s being said. Does the person have an agenda? Does the person criticizing the public figure have open lawsuits or some sort of vendetta going on? Is the person in a position to know what is being claimed? None of these things can be known without the identity of the source.

The one instance where I can tolerate an anonymous source is when they produce a document that is made public and can be verified.

Two made up examples showing the contrast:

Scenario 1: People are being abused in US military prisons

A) Story with unnamed sources says people are being tortured in military prisons. – Not credible.

B) Story with unnamed sources that provided Red Cross and FBI reports documenting prisoners being shackled to walls, given electroshocks, sleep deprived for a week at a time and other forms or torture. – Credible.

Scenario 2: Sarah and Todd are Splitsville!

A) Blog entry with unnamed sources saying that Sarah and Todd will be divorced soon. — As much as I like Gryphen, not hugely credible. What if his sources have an ax to grind? Or are lying to Gryphen on Sarah’s behalf?

A) Blog entry with unnamed sources who provided a copy of Sarah and Todd’s signed separation papers that is posted for people to examine. — Credible.

NOTE: As I said in comments in the original posting, I am taking no position on the accuracy of the divorce story.

Book Review: No Time To Think

Haste doesn’t just make waste. It ruins lives, creates bogus controversies and promotes bad decision making. So appears to be the thesis of:

Rosenberg, Howard, and Charles S. Feldman. 2008. No time to think: the menace of media speed and the 24-hour news cycle. New York: Continuum.

In the past year, I made a choice to almost never credit the first report of a news item, especially if it was about politics or public policy and doubly so if the story only quoted anonymous sources. According to the two angry men who wrote No time to think, this is a sensible policy.

Rosenberg and Feldman seem to be justified in their anger towards news media in general and towards the blogosphere, but sometimes their criticism seems to lapse into snark and profanity. This hurts their case somewhat, as does the lack of detailed sourcing for their anecodotes. But their case is still pretty convincing.

The authors assert that the increasing acceleration of news coverage, which began with radio and newsreels, but given wings by the founding of CNN in 1980 and hyperdrive by the birth of the blogosphere has created a universe of error. An error-filled universe with bad consequences for everybody.

They make their case with many ancecodotes of stories being published without factchecking and in some cases before an event supposedly happened. The stories are compelling but not fully cited. This makes fact-checking the book challenging but possible with enough time. The book does have a two page bibliography which may or may not have better citations for the anecdotes used in the book. It also has a good index so you’ll be able to locate their anecdotes quickly.

While the cable world of 24/7  “news coverage” (really mostly speculation) gets the lion’s share of blame for today’s sad state of news, the blogosphere gets a special drubbing. Rosenberg and Feldman assert with some justice that most bloggers mindlessly repeat and embellish what they hear on traditional media, allowing inaccurate, inflamatory stories instant and global reach. They attribute this not so much to malice on the part of bloggers, but to a lack of journalistic training, laziness in fact checking and a belief that any mistakes made will soon be corrected by other bloggers.

Rosenberg and Feldman examine the “self-correcting blogosphere” belief in some detail with extensive quotes from believers and non-believers alike. Based on their examination of what’s out there, the two authors conclude that other bloggers are more likely to be an echo chamber than offer corrections. But this conclusion is also offered on the basis of anecdotes concerning major stories. But it does feel true.

Aside from diagnosing the problem of media speed and stories that run off the track of truth before they start, the authors make a stab at prescribing a solution. The key to fighting the current sea of disinformation is teaching media literacy to people as young as possible. Media literacy is the practice of asking questions about what you see — who is giving you the information? How is it being presented? How is it being sourced? Could the presenters have their own agenda? And so on. Rosenberg and Feldman say that Canada is advanced in teaching media literacy. I can’t speak to that, but if you’d like to judge one example for yourself, check out Media Literacy, Television, Video and Film Resources from the province of Manitoba.

Despite a few weaknesses in tone and documentation, I think this is a worthwhile book. I also think it would make a good combination with the book True enough: Learning to live in a post fact society.