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25 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:04 pm

Twitterpalooza


BTW, while I’m not live-blogging the convention, I am going to tweet it.  You can follow my feed here.

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22 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
09:14 pm

Maybe John Hodgman Should Ask for a Raise


Microsoft is paying Jerry Seinfeld $10 million to promote Vista.

Vista?  The crappiest software ever?  Shouldn’t they have spent that money on fixing the software?

Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Oh wait.

Yes there is.  To paraphrase another great New Yorker, Jay-Z, my computer’s got 150 problems, and the operating system is more than one of them.

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22 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:43 pm

Thank You David Axelrod. . .for Annoying Everyone


Just got an email from the campaign.

When I saw the Growl notification I thought my long nightmare was over.

Whoopsie!  Nope, not that email.

So they decide to send an email (from “David Axelrod”) on Estategate now?

Sheesh.  Talk about annoying people.

| posted in media, politics | 0 Comments

22 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
07:29 pm

A Theory


The reason we haven’t heard anything yet is because there’s a problem with the technology — they’ve discovered they can’t send out that many text messages at one time, or something along those lines.  And since they promised a text, they’ve delayed the announcement.

Just a theory.

Not sure it would pass Occam’s Razor.

| posted in politics | 0 Comments

22 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:15 pm

Controlympics: Chinese Are Nervous about. . .Something


Something is making the ChiComs nervous.  Danwei is reporting that a search of “China” on Google News from within China produces the following screenshot:

I just checked, and it works from here.  The number two story is about the little old ladies who were sentenced to a year’s reeducation through labor after they applied for a permit to protest, and the number three story is about six Americans being detained for pro-Tibet activities.

But since those would have been caught by the Great Firewall anyway, I’m not sure what’s going on (Danwei isn’t sure either).  I thought at first it might be the underage gymnasts story, but that’s only at number sixteen.

So, readers in China, what’s the deal?  That’s presuming you can still read this.

| posted in globalization, media, pop culture | 0 Comments

19 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:30 pm

Controlympics: Liu Xiang and Censorship


Unless you’re living in a cave, you know that the great Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang had to pull out of the 110m hurdles due to injury.  No matter how I may feel about the Chinese government, this is a true disappointment — Liu was one of the more compelling stories in the Olympics, and I was looking forward to seeing him in the finals.

Now ChinaSmack has this interesting little tidbit:

[T]housands of BBS forum topics were created about Liu Xiang and about what happened. Chinese people throughout China talked about how they felt. There were a lot of upset people criticizing Liu Xiang but there were also a lot of people defending him and supporting him. Almost every topic was about Liu Xiang. . . .

This morning, all posts criticizing Liu Xiang were removed from the Chinese internet.

Apparently nothing is left to chance in Beijing, not even failure.

I have no sympathy for those who harshly criticize Liu because he got hurt.  But they certainly have the right to express their opinion, no matter how wrong-headed it may be.

Except in China, where even disappointment is unpatriotic.

Hat tip:  ChinaSmack

| posted in globalization, politics, pop culture | 0 Comments

18 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
06:45 am

Freebird! (Dumbest. Software. Ever.)


I find myself simultaneously amused and repelled by the newest iPhone app:

iLightr is an innovative entertainment app that harnesses the unique features of the iPhone to create the most realistic lighter experience available on any mobile device. Rather than a stale, unchanging looped video of a flame, iLightr combines high-resolution OpenGL graphics, dynamic sound effects, and accelerometer support to create the only truly interactive lighter simulation available.

When you launch iLightr, you’re presented with a closed lighter. At this point, you can do exactly what you would with a real lighter:

  • Open the lid with a finger slide or a flick of the wrist
  • Ignite iLightr and watch the interactive flame come to life
  • Move left or right to see the flame sway gracefully
  • Touch the flame and watch it dance
  • Swap out your case by double-tapping at any time

iLightr is a compelling, interactive app that will impress your friends and come in handy the next time you find yourself in a crowd.

Yes, it’s hilarious.  And yes, it’s only 99 cents.  And yes, cell phones have replaced lighters at concerts.  But I mean, come on dudelets.  Detailed instructions plus a FAQ page?

Do these guys really think people are going to take this much time to activate an iPhone app when they’re shouting for, I don’t know, Mötorhead or GWAR to come out for an encore?  And if Lemmy did come back out, he’d probably bite your iPhone in half.  Oh wait, that’s Ozzy.

There’s an app I would pay for:  iLemmy.  With “Ace of Spades” as a ringtone.

Hat tip:  TUAW

Photo:  via Hopkinsii, used under a Creative Commons license.

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14 August 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:45 pm

State Department Watch: The Bizarro Blog


I have found this blog’s Bizarro, its Spock with a beard:  the State Department’s blog.  Believe it or not, it’s called Dipnote.

Heh.

I couldn’t make that up if I tried.

Is Foggy Bottom completely lacking in irony?

The main problem with Dipnote is that it’s boring, boring, boring, boring.  Watching paint dry is more interesting boring.  Ferris Bueller’s teacher droning on and on is better boring.  PTA meeting is less torture boring.  Tax audit is more fun boring.

Sorry, thought I was in one of those Yoplait commercials there for a second.

Almost none of Dipnote’s features are interesting or revealing (except in the sense that it shows the degree to which the Department can grind the originality out of anything).  I’m guessing that the mandarins at State have put so many clearance filters on this thing, that almost nothing of any value can get through.

Earlier this week, as Russia was pounding Georgia and Dubya was ogling volleyball babes visiting Beijing, Dipnote led with. . .wait for it. . .a story entitled “Youth Questions Lead to Environmental Action.”

Today is International Youth Day, and this year’s theme is appropriately titled, “Youth and Climate Change: A Time for Action.”

A few weeks ago the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Oceans, Environment and Science, Claudia A. McMurray, spoke to a group of about 400 high school students. These kids were from a number of different countries, as well as throughout the United States, and were one of several groups this summer that have come to the State Department to hear policy speeches on the U.S. government’s top issues. Assistant Secretary McMurray highlighted our Bureau’s work on climate change, illegal wildlife trafficking and illegal logging. She spoke about the U.S. commitment to developing a global solution to climate change that is both environmentally effective and economically sustainable, an agreement that would include participation from all major economies, including the United States.

That’s right:  to the State Department, having an Assistant Secretary talk to high schoolers is considered action on climate change.  Whoa.  What risk takers.

Those poor, poor kids.  They may never hear the words “State Department” again without screaming.

So what exactly does State think they’re accomplishing here?  The material is virtually unreadable.  Most of the posts appear to have been written by interns, fellows and junior public diplomacy officers (although, to be fair, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Sean McCormick has put his name on a few pieces).  About a third are merely a rehash of The Condi’s statements and op-eds. And almost all the comments come from about a dozen regulars, most of whom are Americans. And some of the commenters would be regarded as trolls on any other site.

It’s not really clear who their audience is, why they’re writing, or what they think they’re accomplishing.  I presume this must be a public diplomacy initiative, since it is still illegal for the U.S. Government to disseminate its “propaganda” domestically.  Yet they don’t seem to be reaching very many people (or at least they’re not showing up on Technorati or Google Analytics — something they might want to try to fix).

The posts are all over the place, displaying no common viewpoint or perspective, except maybe “look at this nice thing the State Department is doing.” That’s too bad, because I think there is potential value in the Department having a blog.  But it has to be more than this.

And I’m not sure they really understand the purpose of either blogging or social media.  On July 17, Editor-in-Chief, Heath Kern Gibson posted the following:

U.S. State Department and Social Media:  Tell Us What You Think

[snip]

Last year, along with the creation of the Department’s own YouTube Channel, this blog signified the Department’s foray into social media. Since then, the Department has created a Flickr photos profile, began microblogging using Twitter, distributed audio and video podcasts to iTunes and others using ten RSS feeds, and last week, launched the Department’s first official Facebook page. We encourage you to explore these products and let us know how we can better utilize them.

There have been many books and articles written on the relationship between traditional media and foreign policy, with the question often asked as to what degree the news media influences foreign policymakers and vice versa. What has not been discussed as much is the impact of social media on policymaking and the foreign affairs community.

It may not be quite clear yet as to what impact social media will have exactly on foreign policymaking. What is evident, though, is that foreign policy does not operate in a vacuum, and it must incorporate or respond to changes in communications. We are interested in your thoughts on how social media — how these changes in communication — will affect foreign policymaking in the years ahead.

Two words I never thought I’d see together:  diplomats tweeting.

Unfortunately, Gibson almost immediately got smacked down for even posing the question.  Five days later, Gibson’s boss, Assistant Secretary Sean McCormick responded:

Many of you raise an important question about the ability to influence large organizations, in this the case the State Department, through social media. Of course, there are a variety of ways this happens every day on sites not related to the government. We are different because of the relatively closed nature of the policy-making process (this applies across different administrations) so we acknowledge our limits up front. What that does not mean, however, is that you or we should accept those limits as immutable. One way in which I hope this blog evolves to involve you more is in bringing to our attention events (breaking or slowly unfolding). When we receive such information, it is my hope that we can internalize, analyze, and, when possible, act on the information. We are a ways from that model now, but over time culture changes. When I refer to culture in this case, I mean the State Department. It is an inherently conservative (and by that I mean slow to accept and implement change) culture. In less than a year, though, I see change with more posters coming forward to us with material they want to share with you.

I will work with you on the flip side of the equation, in which your feedback or suggestions make their way in to our decision-making processes. I’m reading a great book now, Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies . While the book is directed at use of social technologies in business, I can see some parallels on which we can draw, especially in modifying internal processes.

In other words, don’t get your hopes up — nothing in this building is going to change anytime soon.  And if you want it to change, it’s your responsibility to push us to change, because we won’t do it on our own.

That does not bode well for either the future of this blog or the ability of the Department to respond to evolving technology.  Good luck, Mr. Gibson.  You’re going to need it.

Photos:  Wikipedia, via a GNU Free Documentation License

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31 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:00 pm

Hey Hasbro: B-I-T-E M-E


An update to my previous post on the Scrabble-Scrabulous wars, via Condé Nast Portfolio:

Yesterday’s decision by Scrabulous to pull its super-popular online knock-off from U.S. and Canadian Facebook sites in the face of mounting legal pressure from Hasbro, is, as Yogi Berra might say, deja vu all over again.

Once again, here is an embattled industry — is this case board game manufacturers, getting walloped by a digital tidal wave. And the reaction? Lawsuits…. Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the brothers behind Scrabulous, not only came up with a superior means of distribution, but arguably came up with superior content as well. The proof is in the uproar by angry fans who are not exactly flocking to Hasbro’s sanctioned online version of Scrabble, produced with EA.

[snip]

But as the past few years have shown, the embattled industry may be the short term winner by shutting down a site or two. But eventually the digital tidal wave overtakes them. The only way for such an industry to survive is to invest and embrace. For the life of me, I don’t understand why Hasbro simply didn’t buy Scrabulous and hire the brothers Agarwalla to develop online versions of its other board games.

It makes me wonder, though if this is the end of the battle, or just the beginning.  Shutting down Napster didn’t stop file sharing.  In this case, what if people keep playing the game?  Will Hasbro adopt the tactics of the Recording Industry Association of America and start going after individual users?

Even if they don’t, Hasbro just did more harm to their brand than if they had been caught coating Scrabble tiles with dog poo.

For those of you who would like to boycott Hasbro, stick it to the M-A-N (8 points) and support the brothers Agarwalla, I suggest you go here.

| posted in globalization, pop culture | 0 Comments

29 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
03:29 pm

The Indictment Is a Series of Counts


Ted Stevens, pork-barrel champion, cranky old man, and internet pioneer, has been indicted on seven counts of falsely reporting income (so as to hide some free renovations to his home and some gifts).  Once again, we have a politician who has forgotten the old adage that the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime.

So for those nostalgics out there (and for those of you who have yet not seen it), here’s 13tongimp’s classic techno remix of the Senator’s most tubular moment:

Oh, and Senator, I hear that the prison is a series of solid metal bars, not tubes.

| posted in politics, pop culture | 0 Comments

26 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:00 pm

Procrastination Site of the Day


Unnecessary Knowledge.   Keep hitting refresh until you’re bored.  Here are five I ran across that I liked.

  • During World War II, the very first bomb dropped on Berlin by the Allies killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo.
  • The name of all the continents end with the same letter that they start with.
  • Los Angeles’ full name is “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula.”
  • There are more pigs than humans in Denmark.
  • More people are killed by donkeys annually than are killed in plane crashes.

Not to sound humorless, but I would like to take issue with the site’s characterization of the following information as unnecessary:

  • 70 percent of the poor people in the world are female.
  • Approximately 20 percent of Americans have a passport.
  • Annually, the amount of garbage that is dumped in the world’s oceans is three times the weight of fish that is caught from the oceans.

If more people knew these things, maybe we could do something about them.

| posted in media | 1 Comment

25 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:00 am

Triple Damages (Score): L A W S U I T


Hey — 10 points, plus a double letter on the W for another 4 points, 50 points for using all my tiles — and a triple word score!  That’s  192 points!  W00T!!  Molly is gonna kill me — it’s celebrations like this that led her to put me in “Scrabble Time Out.”

Which apparently is where Hasbro, the creator of Scrabble, is wants  to put Scrabulous:

Read the rest of this entry »

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24 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
02:45 pm

Believe the Government. Even If You’re About to Die.


It turns out that the ChiComs are so worried about terrorism that they have created an online guide for its citizens on how to detect terrorist suspects.  The BBC has translated part of it.

Read the rest of this entry »

| posted in foreign policy, globalization, war & rumors of war | 0 Comments

16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
08:32 pm

Cyber War or Cylon War?


Increasingly, this election is becoming a referendum on how much our President needs to know about technology to be effective.  I’ve already made fun of John McCain’s utter incomprehension of  the intertubes, and made clear my concern that our next president have at least a basic understanding of how the modern world works.

Today, Barack Obama demonstrated that he gets it, and in the process also showed just how far apart he and McCain are when it comes to technology.  In a speech at Purdue University in Lafayette Indiana, Obama outlined how he would prepare for a future cyber war:

As President, I’ll make cyber security the top priority that it should be in the 21st century. I’ll declare our cyber-infrastructure a strategic asset, and appoint a National Cyber Advisor who will report directly to me. We’ll coordinate efforts across the federal government, implement a truly national cyber-security policy, and tighten standards to secure information - from the networks that power the federal government, to the networks that you use in your personal lives.

To protect our national security, I’ll bring together government, industry, and academia to determine the best ways to guard the infrastructure that supports our power. Fortunately, right here at Purdue we have one of the country’s leading cyber programs. We need to prevent terrorists or spies from hacking into our national security networks. We need to build the capacity to identify, isolate, and respond to any cyber-attack. And we need to develop new standards for the cyber security that protects our most important infrastructure - from electrical grids to sewage systems; from air traffic control to our markets.

I think Obama’s speech does a good job of recognizing the reality of cyber threats, and he deserves credit for that.  I do wish he placed less emphasis two of the politician’s favorite dodges:  appointing a czar to manage a key issue and naming a commission to study it.

But even he’s not painting a complete picture.  It’s not just about what “they” can do to us.  It’s also about what we have done to ourselves.

Let’s start with  four critical factors that Obama overlooked.  Two involve the technology itself and two involve the people chosen to design, manage, and implement the systems we put in place.

A.  Technology

1.  Our current cyber-security infrastructure is built on antiquated legacy systems that desperately need upgrading.  The degree to which this is true varies from agency to agency (which also is a problem).  To put it another way, all over the government, there are lanes on the internet superhighway with car-eating potholes and bridges to the 21st century that are on the verge of collapse.

2.  Six years after 9/11 interoperability and inter-agency (and sometimes intra-agency) communications remain serious problems.  This is not just an issue of systems being able to talk to one another, but also a question of proper systems integration and coordination. And that doesn’t even address the challenge of getting agencies to stop using good systems just to wall themselves off from the rest of the government.

B.  People

3.  Unles we seriously upgrade both recruitment and compensation, the US Government does not have the resources to hire the best and the brightest away from the private sector.  A National Cyber Advisor is a good start, but what is really needed is a Cyber Corps capable of identifying and solving serious technological, technical, and interoperabilty challenges.

4.  We desperately need to rewire our people as well, giving them the mental models they need to utilize rather than just apply technological solutions.  The existing heavily bureaucratic and rules-based (as opposed to values-based) approach prevalent in most government agencies generates outcomes that short-circuit even the best technology.

To make matters worse, these problems don’t operate in isolation from another.  Instead, they often combine to create new challenges while doing nothing to solve the old ones.  Let me cite just one example:  the national terrorist watch list, which the government started as part of its response to 9/11.  Today, according to the ACLU, that list contains more than a million names.  Does anybody in the government seriously think that there are that many terrorists in the world?

So what happened here?  Frankly, I don’t know for sure — I’m neither familiar with the database nor privy to how it has been used.  And let me emphasize once again that I am not an expert on technology, security, or how the government works.  But if I were to speculate, I’m guessing that this is how events played out:

  • To create the database, the U.S. Government issued a request for proposals and subsequently hired a contractor, probably the lowest bidder.  Since the USG did not pay top dollar and relied on an outside source, chances are that the company ultimately responsible for building the database did it in a way that minimized effort and maximized profit.
  • When the system was installed, the people who were to use the database received only minimal training — how to enter suspects, how to look up names, etc.  No one inside or outside the government was shown how to use the database’s dynamic qualities, and no one actually doing the data input was taught to think about what they were doing.
  • Once the system was up and running, multiple agencies simultaneously added names to the database, probably with minimal inter-agency consultation or cooperation.  The end result was that no one paid any attention to what anyone else was doing.  According to an October 2007 report by Glenn Fine, the Justice Department Inspector General, an average of 20,000 new names get added every month.
  • To minimize hassle and maximize ease of use, no safeguards were installed either to protect civil liberties or address the due process implications of say, having two John Smiths in the database but ten thousand John Smiths trying to get on flights.
  • As a result, those using the database to check for terrorists only know that they have a match, with no capacity to ferret out false positives and mistaken identities.
  • Since the system is designed only to penalize those who don’t obey the rules, those using the system have absolutely no incentive to help those inadvertently identified as terrorists.
  • Once someone is in the system, there is little or no recourse for them to get their name removed, condemning them to a permanent negative feedback loop involving unnecessary delays, futile searches, and ritualized humiliation.
  • And since multiple agencies means no responsibility, there’s no accountability. No one is in charge.
  • The end result is a database not only functionally useless, but actually a real hindrance to ferreting out real terrorists.

If Senator Obama really wants us to be prepared for external attacks, he first has to make sure our own hose is in order.  That will require him — and his new Cyber Advisor — to move beyond the very real threat of cyber-terrorism to address the far more prevalent challenges caused by a broken system.

I’ll be interested to see whether John McCain has a response to this.  I’m afraid that when he does, however, he just might confuse the idea of cyber war with Cylon War.  And then we’d end up in a 100-year war against the robots.  You gotta think that won’t end well.

| posted in foreign policy, politics, pop culture, war & rumors of war, world at home | 1 Comment

16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
04:53 pm

Dillweeds of the Day


Verizon.

Oh how I hate them right now.

I spent the day sitting at home waiting for the Verizon trolls to show up to switch us over to FiOS.

Not a big deal, right?  Well, let me put it this way:  this is the third separate day that they told me that they would show up.  The first time, they scheduled it exactly when I told them I was going to be out of town.  When I called them to change it, they assured me it was rescheduled.  And then they still showed up.

Since then, they’ve promised to come out twice and not shown up.  Each time, I have to stay at home — and since my other hat is as a consultant, it costs me money.  I’ve spent hours — and I mean hours — on the phone with them trying to get this resolved.  I’ve spoken to dozens of people dozens of times, up to and including a Vice President.  I’ve been apologized to, offered discounts, even promised a letter formally acknowledging that they were jerks.

Today, they promised, would be different.  Today, they promised, would dawn with a technician at my door — well by 8:00.  Not to worry, they assured me, we’ll come, hook you up in less than an hour, and let you head out the door to do other work.

At 8:00, no technician.  At 10:30, I called.  They claimed a technician couldn’t find parking — despite the fact that there are meters on every side of the building we live in AND there’s a parking garage a half-block away.  It turns out that they sent a huge bucket truck to my building and it couldn’t find a place to park.  So they assigned a new technician, who called me personally and promised to be here by 3:30… and showed up by 3:30.  So at least one person in the company knows how to honor a commitment.

Oh, and here’s the best part.  We live across the street from the main Verizon building in Arlington.

Dillweeds all.  Well, except the tech.  He was great.

Want to nominate someone or something for Dillweed of the Day, Week, or Month?  Let me know.  This won’t be daily unless it’s deserved, but I assure you I’m happy to highlight any and all forms of hypocrisy.

Image from Urban Dictionary

| posted in media, pop culture | 0 Comments

16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
12:35 pm

State Department: Not Even a PC, Much Less a Mac


One of my goals for this blog is to start a discussion on whether the rapid evolution in technology has had an impact on the practice of foreign policy. It should be an interesting topic, given the U.S. Government’s absolutely inept response to emerging trends like email, podcasting, and oh, I don’t know, the wheel.

Let me be clear:  I’m not an expert on either technology or security.  But this is too important an issue not to touch upon.  Furthermore, it’s is not a partisan issue:  modernizing our foreign policy infrastructure should be something that both McCain and Obama should agree on.  Then again, given McCain’s own fear of/wonder at the intertubes, I may be wrong.

There are two problems.  The first is that the State Department and other government agencies are not equipped to adapt quickly to emerging technologies.  If you’ve never been to the State Department, much less worked there, then you probably don’t know that it’s notoriously behind the times.  Part of the problem is security — they’re still coming to terms with how to manage classified data.  Another factor is that, as far as I know, the foreign service does not include awareness of technology in its hiring criteria.  A third issue is that the government can’t compete with the private sector in terms of attracting the talent it needs to stay close to the curve, much less ahead of it.

But those issues don’t tell the full story.   When I arrived at State ten years ago, they were still getting around to replacing the Wang terminals they had bought in the early 80s. For those not in the know, Wang was an early leader in PC technology that used its own OS.

Although it was in many ways more sophisticated than the IBM PC, the Wang’s inability to run MS-DOS meant that it quickly lost market share and eventually went out of business — leaving behind thousands of machines in the Department.  The fact that it took the Department nearly ten years to replace them tells you enough about the internal challenges.  I’m guessing things have gotten better since then, but during a recent visit to the Department, I think saw a Wang terminal sitting in a corner.

The second problem is that many people currently responsible for managing our foreign policy don’t “get” technology any better than John McCain does.  Before I worked at State, I was at a small NGO with about twelve staff.  We had Windows, and everybody taught themselves how to use it.  When State made the transition from Wang to Windows, all Department staff were required to go to the Foreign Service Institute to learn how to use it.

Now we’re not talking rocket science here.  Windows, Word, and Excel are fairly intuitive.  And frankly, I knew more about them than the guy teaching us.  Yet in my class, the only people who had had any experience with what by then already was a ubiquitous system were the ones who had had other jobs before coming to State.  The foreign service officers were lost.  WYSWIG mystified them.  And like many people confronted with something new, their response was largely hostile.

But this isn’t just a question of computers, or even of individual capabilities.  I don’t mean to pick on FSOs.  Just look at the government’s efforts to create satellite teevee networks.  Al Hurrah’s incompetence has gotten the most attention lately, but it’s not like they’re the only problem station:  TV Marti, the US effort to broadcast to Cuba, has been a joke for decades.

Furthermore, the Department still doesn’t know how to operate in internet time.  Its clearance process, created for the drafting of cables to far-off posts, can take so long and be so ponderous that it makes it difficult to draft press guidance or formal responses.  In addition, the clearance process favors those willing to play dirty:  if you’re trying to get language cleared for the spokesperson before his 12:00 briefing, and it’s 11:45 and the Turkey desk won’t clear your draft, you have two choices:  cave and go with their language, or fight and get the spokesperson angry at you.  It’s a no-win situation and favors those who want to play it safe.

When it comes to social media, things are even worse.  You may have heard that the CIA regards use of everything from Facebook to World of Warcraft as disqualification for employment in the clandestine service.  And there are few blogs more lame than Dipnote, which I keep on my blogroll largely out of a mix of pity and masochism.

In other words, our foreign policy apparatus continues to display the same combination of hostility towards and incomprehension of technology that characterizes much of the rest of the government. Let me put it another way: Were Apple to make one of their “I’m a Mac” commercials about State, the PC character would be played by John McCain.

What do you think?  Please share your observations in the comment section below.  And while you’re thinking, here’s a hilarious iPhone parody from E! Television’s The Soup.  It’s not really germane to the topic — except to bet that State and CIA probably don’t allow their employees to use iPhones — but hey, it made me laugh.  Enjoy….

| posted in none of the above | 0 Comments

16 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:27 am

Done Well & Done Right: Four Sites Worth Your Time


Last week, I blogged about The Washington Post’s utter incomprehension of new media.  In the spirit of not just criticizing but actually offering constructive solutions, I wanted to suggest four news sites worth checking every day.

1.  The New York Times — still the best site by a major paper.  Strengths:  It treats its front page as a constantly evolving version of its print edition, and does a great job of balancing reporting and blogging (it is the only major paper I know of that keeps a rotating list of its blogs in a prominent place on the main page).  Its blogs actually break news.  Drawbacks:  it still doesn’t quite “get” video, and its “most popular” box is too far down the page.  It’s ad-heavy, which I guess is to be expected, but the pop-ups, banners, and min-ads before video can get pretty annoying.

2.  McClatchey — probably the best example of a major media company (they own dozens of papers) “getting” new media.  Strengths:  Great layout, strong integration of news feeds and blogs by foreign correspondents (some of which rank among my favorites anywhere).  Prominent attention to feature stories.  Able to integrate best work from newspapers all over the country.  No ads.  Drawbacks:  Not many.  Major stories only rotate once a day, like a print edition.  Site is a bit text-heavy, but I like it.  Reporters get bylines only if they have the lead story.

3.  The Washington Independent (and affiliates) — a brand new effort by the Center for Independent Media to publish an online “newspaper” to compete with old media giants. CIM has established similar “papers” (all with Independent in the title) in Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, and New Mexico (do I sense a swing state trend here?).   Strengths:  Some really good reporters, particularly Spencer Ackerman (who may be the best blogporter in the industry) and Sridhar Pappu.  Young, scrappy, hungry — they’re already providing some of the best coverage of key stories like the SOFA controversy. No ads. Drawbacks: They’re still learning their way.  Reporting sometimes involves commenting on other people’s stories as opposed to new content (as if I’m one to talk).  Small, so their coverage tends to focus on a few (albeit important) stories.  Their layout is getting better, but it’s still a little clunky.

4.  ProPublica — another new kid on the block, but one with the pockets to have a real impact.  Founded in order to fill a growing gap in print media’s investigative reporting capabilities.  Strengths:  They’ve drawn some top-flight talent and given them the leeway to explore issues in-depth.  If the first few stories are any indicator, they’re going to be outstanding.  Despite being a non-profit, they have the resources to compete with the largest media operations in the country.  No ads. “Scandal Watch” feature is great.  Drawbacks:  Still fairly new, and they don’t have much content yet.  Their news feed is merely an aggregator of other sources — and is unlikely to change, since their mission is to focus on in-depth reporting.  News aggregator is near the top of the page, above actual reporting.  Layout is still a bit clunky.  Weak, non-intuitive integration of RSS feeds and blogs.

Those are the first four I look at every day.  In addition, I use Google Reader as my RSS reader, which enables me to track 150 blogs and news feeds.  And let me be clear here:  I said track, not necessarily read.  I do have  a life (although Molly is increasingly wondering whether I’m married to her or my MacBook Pro).

What are your must-read news sites?

| posted in media | 0 Comments

14 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
11:57 am

John McCain Finds His Chief Technology Officer


There’s hope for John McCain after all:

Heh.  I especially like the inclusion of Viagra spam.

I’m still not sure that I want a president who can’t log onto a computer without relying on the Video Professor. But props to John Shears for seizing on a dream marketing opportunity.

Hat tip: Matthew Yglesias

| posted in globalization, media, politics, pop culture, war & rumors of war | 0 Comments

13 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
10:14 pm

Is That a Missile in Your Pocket or Are You Just Glad to Photoshop Me?


This is a fairly long post.  I hope you find it worthwhile.

I’m a big fan of Errol Morris, the terrific documentarian whose latest film, Standard Operating Procedure, is a devastating dissection of what happened at Abu Ghraib and how it reflects an Administration unconcerned with the Constitution, morality, or America’s standing in the world.

But liking Morris’s work doesn’t mean that I always agree with him.  Take his oped in today’s NYT, which concerns the recent (largely online) kerfuffle over doctored photos of an Iranian missile test.  To understand how wrong Morris is, we need to take a look at the photos in question.

But first, for those who aren’t aware of the controversy, a quick recap:  last Wednesday (July 10), Iran conducted a missile test.  Initial media coverage made it sound like Iran had significantly expanded its capacity to attack Israel and the United States:

Iran demonstrated its military force with the test-flight of nine long and medium-range missiles in the strategic Strait of Hormouz…. Tehran said the exercise was in retaliation to threats from the US and Israel over its disputed nuclear projects, which it claims are civilian.

Then people started taking a closer look at the photos released by the Iranians in conjunction with the test.  Let’s start with the one distributed by the Associated Press, among others:

Now here’s the version distributed by Agence France Presse (AFP):

Whoopsie!  One of these things is not like the other.

As reported on The Lede, a NYT blog, AFP subsequently withdrew their shot because it was “digitally altered.”  AFP said it got its version from Sepah News, the press arm of the Iranian Revolutionary National Guard, those paragons of truth, accuracy, and good reporting.

Now let’s return to what Morris had to say about the controversy:

[W]hat is the purpose of these Iranian missile photographs? They are clearly altered. The question remains: Why, and to what end?

The government of Iran could not have created a more self-serving controversy. It has focused our attention on Iranian military might more than ever. What will we remember — the digital manipulation of this photograph or the missiles streaking into the sky with their contrails of smoke? Will we ask about essential details — the range or the payload of these weapons? All we are left with is a threat in visual form.

The photographs tell us little about the real threat of Iran. The danger here is not in three missiles versus four. We do not understand the intentions behind the photograph — real or digitally manipulated. Is it a threat? A warning? Or a bluff? All we really know about the photograph is that the government of Iran wanted to get the attention of the world, and it succeeded.

Morris is a brilliant filmmaker and, from what I’ve heard, an equally talented photographer. But he totally misses the point here.  Iran is less ominous and scary as a result of this, not more.  At best they’re bumblers; at worst, they’re complete idiots.

Think I’m mistaken?  Just take a look at posts on sites like Boing Boing (”Iran:  You Suck at Photoshop”), and Wired’s Danger Room (”Attack of the Photoshopped Missiles”).   Netizens are having a field day not only mocking the Iranians but creating their own versions of the photo.  In fact, we should give Ahmadinejad credit here.  For one brief shining moment, liberal and conservative bloggers came together to abuse Iran.

The results are priceless.  Here are a few of my favorites (and yes, I know there are quite a few, but hey, it’s my blog):

Are We Lumberjacks:

Cowicide on Flickr:

Fark:

Snapped Shot:

The Mini Blog:

Are We Lumberjacks again (this is my personal favorite):

PolitiComix:

Fark, again:

And again:

And last but not least, Giant Ideas:

So in sum, the Iranians managed to take something that should have been deadly serious and turned it into one big SNL skit.  As “Farmer Dave,” a commenter on Boing Boing put it, “You know, if you’re going to play at the planet’s ‘adult table,’ you really, really, need to make sure you don’t have idiots in your propaganda office.”

But even that isn’t even the complete story:  there’s a very real possibility that the whole “crisis” is much ado about nothing.   Arms Control Wonk:

Yes, Iran has claimed that it is working on a longer, possibly two-stage [missle], with a 2,000 km range — but that ain’t what Iran launched.

Our intern — a clever kid from MIT named Nick Calluzzo — points out that the external dimensions of the tested Shahab-3 are identical to previously tested missiles. Which means the missiles are probably identical.

[Calluzzo:] “Based on analysis of the available launch footage, it is apparent that the missile launched yesterday is, in fact, an older, shorter range version [of the ] Shahab-3A…. [T]he missile launched today is just the same 1,200 km range Nodong-1 knockoff the Iranians have had functional since as early as 1998.”

So in other words, the Iranians just tested a missile that they’ve had in their arsenal for ten years.  Despite this, one of the four missiles “tested” didn’t fire properly.  So to cover up the fact that a decade-old system really wasn’t working properly, they decided to photoshop the results.

And guess what?  It worked.  Set aside the photoshopping issue for a moment and realize that the media ran with a story that wasn’t news.

Furthermore, reports of a second missile test on Thursday also were overblown.  Apparently the only missile tested was the one that didn’t fire on Wednesday — the one sitting on the ground in the AP version and photoshopped into the AFP version.

Now let’s put the cherry on this hot fudge sundae:  the Bush Administration has responded to this with their usual display of calm  and thoughtful deliberation complete hysteria:

[T]he US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, said the [Iranian] “war games” justified America’s defence plans with bases in eastern Europe. She said the tests were “evidence that the missile threat is not an imaginary one…. Those who say there is no Iranian missile threat against which we should build a missile defence system perhaps ought to talk to the Iranians about their claims.”

Okay, let me think about this for a minute.  We are justifying a set of insanely dangerous policies as a result of a test of some missiles that Iran has had for ten freaking years.  A test where not all of missiles fired properly.  A test that demonstrated only that the Iranians’ photoshopping skills have progressed at a faster rate than their missile-building skills.

To be clear, I do think that Iran obtaining the bomb is a genuine national security threat.  But it does not even remotely help that argument when you start portraying a partially successful test of an old system as a clear and present danger.  Let’s keep our eye on the ball, people.  And Mr. Morris, please try to see the bigger picture here.

| posted in foreign policy, media, politics, pop culture, war & rumors of war, world at home | 1 Comment

13 July 2008 Charles J. Brown
05:30 pm

Comin’ Down Fast — Look Out!


After my last post on third parties, I couldn’t help but go back and look at Mike Gravel’s (in)famous YouTube cover of the Beatles’ Helter Skelter. If you missed it back in April, take a moment to sit back and enjoy a short ride on the crazy train.

That has to be the strangest campaign commercial ever made.  But hey — our government has produced even stranger stuff.  Maybe President Obama could choose Gravel as his Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy….

| posted in media, politics, pop culture | 1 Comment

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