Archives for the month of: December, 2008

The other day I got to looking back at all the online activity in my past, and saw how entwined my day-to-day life has been with the Web since way back.

First off, I recall I started a blog in 1996, a year before the word was invented.

In 1996, during the Clinton-Dole presidential race, I started an online political column I called “Content.” It had aa cool logo. I used The Well, and updated the site manually. That site has disappeared into the ether, but each time I updated I also posted to the alt.politics.elections Usenet group and those posts still exist. Here are a few. The earliest one I could find:

THE HAND THAT (MIGHT) FEED
Term-limited Assemblyman Phil Isenberg (D-Sacramento) has an irate letter to the editor in today’s Sacramento Bee. Isenberg says Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) promised a “good, clean” gambling regulation bill this year, but the result (SB1887) looked more like a special-interest wish-list than a regulating bill. Isenberg says the Assembly had to clean it up. One of the things the Assembly did was add a provision which would ban candidates from attorney general from taking campaign contributions from gambling interests. Makes sense, huh? But Lockyer is mulling a race for AG, and campaigns being as expensive as they are, it would take quite a politician to give up all that potential money. Evidently, Lockyer isn’t that politician: he let the Senate adjourn instead of allowing the bill to be heard.

And this was the latest one I could find, in June 1997:

HAVE YOUR CAKE BUT DON’T EAT IT, TOO
Back a ways (May 30, actually) the Assembly Appropriations Committee killed a popular idea by Republican Assemblyman Brooks Firestone. AB13 would have created a tax-exempt college savings program for parents, run by the state. Seems ol’ Brooks (yes, he is heir to the tire fortune) is pondering running for Lieutenant Governor, and such a popular piece of legislation with his name on it would be a nice feather in his cap come campaign time. So the Democratic leadership killed it. But then (long about June 9) the leadrship had a change of heart and realized they had killed a good idea–so they kindly resurrected “Scholarshare.” The only catch: Firestone doesn’t get to have his name on the bill–the new “author” will be the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

Later, in 1998, working at the Institute for Global Ethics, I had the idea of starting something we called Business Ethics Newsline. The first edition was in February that year. I wrote columns for Newsline on occasion. It’s still going strong.

I’d have to say my favorite Newsline item was called “Civic TQM:”

Imagine we were able to implement TQM in the civic life of the United States. Opinion makers would encourage people to focus on fixing problems early in the process, when it’s first possible to correct — and possibly preempt — them. Instead of telling citizens that their highest — and only — duty is to vote, what if we were to spend a similar amount of energy encouraging citizens to get involved before November? The intense get-out-the-vote efforts by so many nonprofit community groups could become get-out-the-letter-to-the-editor campaigns focused on Labor Day, when there is enough time to influence policy proposals. We could create a new social movement around quality citizenship.

While at IGE, I also had the idea to start a newsletter called Campaign Conduct This Week. It was a weekly (natch) roundup of political happenings that related to ethics in politics. I can’t find many traces of it, except for a December 1999 version that the San Juan County prosecutor’s office sent out to an email list (we used to send it out by email as well as post it).

Then, in 2003, after I had left my job and struck out on my own, I started my own blog under my own name. I called this one Public Comments, and it was just an occasional outlet for writing. I was even quite haughty about not calling it a “blog” — no, these were essays. Occasionally I’d get them published in The Christian Science Monitor but more often it was just an outlet for my thoughts.

Later, in 2007 I started a local blog called Rockville Central, which takes up a great deal of my blogging time. I wrote a recent article all about that here.

Around this time, I also started writing more and more frequently for Pajamas Media, a collection of bloggers (like Huffington Post).

So I guess it makes sense that I started this daily blog up recently. The last dozen years have been filled with various versions of blogs, and now perhaps doing one that is just my daily thoughts will be good for me.

But . . . what to write about?

Seth Godin points out that bloggers aren’t going to be winning any Pulitzers — unless they are posting at major news sites already. He says:

So, Tom Friedman can win a well-deserved prize for writing what is essentially a blog for the NY Times, but if he goes off on his own, he’s out. What a shame. As newspapers melt all around us, faster and faster, the people in the newspaper business persist in believing that the important element of a news-paper is the paper part.

I am not sure that is true. John Gapper at the Financial Times has a well thought-through discussion of what it might really mean that newspapers are dying.

The question for national and international reporting is not whether city papers survive but whether news organisations such as The New York Times do. Clearly, if they did not, and blogs were left alone to provide coverage of Washington and Iraq, there would be a problem.

Gapper’s point, among others (and I recommend the whole article) is that news-gathering, which is the core business of the major newspapers, takes resources that bloggers, even when aggregated into something like, say Pajamas Media, just don’t have.

Something has to keep feeding our appetite for news, and blogs can’t fill it. They provide commentary, analysis, sarcasm, thoughtful argument, and behind the scenes facts — but not news.

So, while the “paper” part of newspapers may well be crumbling, I don’t think news institutions as a whole are going the way of the dodo. Sure, daily newspapers may fade — but not all. Instead, I imagine their newsgathering efforts being consolidated into a handful of players.

It’s already happening to an extent. The Web has allowed Reuters and AFP to rise. CNN is considering competing against the Associated Press as a wire service.

As a blogger, I depend on news items to come over the transom. So, I hope the “mainstream media” does not crumble!

I’ve been staying up late, working into the wee hours, and all day on weekend days, crunching to get a project done. It’s got me thinking about working at home versus working at an office — and how the lines are blurring more and more. My own “work life” is tightly integrated into my “home life” so much so that our household is pretty unusual. But we are also illustrative of what may be a trend. A few years ago I wrote a column for The Christian Science Monitor about this:

As I rise in the early morning, I often imagine a farmhouse in a small, agricultural community, perhaps in Maine 80 years ago. This imaginary farm provides the means for the family’s getting by. The chickens give up eggs; the cows, milk; and the soil, vegetables. Well-tended, the farm generates income at market as well as sustenance at home. It is the economic engine of the family. All hands work at making it run.

Our own house is like that farm, updated for the early 21st century. Instead of milking the cows, I fire up my screen and scan the night’s e-mail. Instead of harvesting the turnips, my wife drafts a new report for a client. Instead of feeding the chickens, the kids could collate a mailing (admittedly a rare occurrence). All of this puts food on the table. And it all happens at home.

I know most people go off to work. But, ours is not some oddball approach to life. The way we live shares similarities with many of the people I see every day. On Sunday, I got a call from my dentist’s office asking to reschedule a Monday appointment. Where does one find help willing to make such a call on a Sunday? It’s the dentist’s spouse — they work together. My local barbershop is run by a husband and wife team who have a back room where their preteen kids spend lots of time. They wander back and forth between “work” and “home” all day long. I know more neighbors whose entire work life is focused at home than I do neighbors who go off on a daily commute. This is too small and idiosyncratic a sample to say there is a trend. But it’s clear that there are many households where “work” has taken on a different meaning, where the lines are blurred and the house itself seems to be the economic engine for the family.

As we hurtle into an uncertain future, it can feel as if we’re going back in time.

Xenophon, “history’s first professional writer” according to one classics professor, was born in Athens around 430 BC. His Oeconomicus is influential. It is a housekeeping manual, a discussion between the immortal Socrates and another man, concerning the best way to keep an estate. In this work, the two agree that it is “the business of the good economist to manage his own house or estate well.” It is from this household care manual that we get the word “economics.” It’s about the inflows and outflows that go into keeping a home. Seen this way, “home economics” is redundant: Economy is about the home to begin with.

The nature of work is changing, business pundits now tell us. Institutions shrink, businesses squeeze ever more cost out of operations, commutes get so long that it becomes a chump’s game. Increasingly people in the “economy” are trading the workaday world for the workaday-at-home world. As the new century began there were more than 18 million such entrepreneurs, according to the US Census.

Since I wrote that, it’s only gotten more that way. Even my friends who have “office” jobs are working at home half the time, and not because they are being driven by Scrooge but because that’s just their work style. Still other friends are starting up home-based entrepreneurial ventures. Another friend who is getting an online news venture off the ground spends what seems like most of her time working at a cafe.

As the economy sheds jobs at a rate of half a million per month, what will a “job” mean? Is this “home economics” just the province of so-called “knowledge workers?” Just think of all those people — ordinary folks, the Wal*Mart world — who have started businesses on eBay.

I wonder if it will see odd, eventually to go off and work at a place instead of work at home. That only the jobs that need a physical presence will be handled that way.

Or, will the pendulum swing back? I’ll confess: throughout my thriving home economics world, I regularly consider shifting and working at an office.

I do a lot of work with organizations trying to change how they relate to — and work with — communities. As a result, I write a lot of reports about “changing work habits in order to make change in communities” and whatnot.

There’s a challenge in writing such things. Often, it is hard to make them seem real. The results are often things like: “staff have new ways of relating to one another,” or “people in the community see the organization in a new light.” Even if it’s all true it sounds sort of . . . lame. I always imagine someone reading the report and shouting, “These are results?! We spent how much money on this?!”

I am always trying to write these reports a little punchier, a little more solid, a little better. So my eyes widened when I came across an excerpt from an article that seemed to me to strike exactly the right tone.

It’s about an organization that totally changed out it relates to the community, embracing a number of Web 2.0 ideas and shifting from being an old-school organization to a nimble, community-centered outfit. It revamped its website and started seeing itself as a resource to the community. The results (and this is always where it’s hard to write) were astonishinng — awards, accolades, all the metrics pointing up. Wow!

The kicker? The organization is the Roxy on Sunset Strip. You never know where connecting with the community can take you!

(Thanks to my good friend Thomas for pointing this out to me.)

Read on:

From LAist June 2008:

…[Nic] Adler {who owns the Roxy] realized that radical change was needed as the venue could no longer rely on reputation alone. It was no longer “cool” to play at The Roxy, unless you were a hair metal band. It was getting harder and harder for The Roxy to be competitive.

The final straw came in October 2006. Adler was driving up Doheny on his way to the club when a sign-flipper tapped on his windshield with a big GOING OUT OF BUSINESS sign, for Tower Records. He had grown up with Tower Records right down the street from The Roxy. He knew that if he didn’t do something to turn things around…The Roxy, and the rest of the Strip would be next to go.

Adler turned to the Internet. He created a MySpace profile for the club. Within three weeks he saw an impact on the club. Earlier that year he had hired Megan Jacobs, former talent buyer for Temple Bar, in attempt to bring in some new talent to the venue. Jacobs introduced Adler to online media specialist Kyra Reed in November of 2006, and Reed brought the change he was looking for.

Reed convinced Adler that the future was online and it was time to be bold. The Roxy website ditched their old-school site and moved to a blog format. Furthermore, Adler took the spirit of community and transparency a step further by including listings for other businesses and venues on the Strip. This radical departure from the competitive nature of the industry has made an impact, although few — if any — venues have followed suit with their internet presence. Adler is admittedly hooked on social media now and it’s apparent — The Roxy, which only years ago went after camera-wielding patrons, now has a massive presence on the web and even hosts user-generated photos and videos on the site. The Roxy is also one of four nominees for Best Rock Site for this month’s VH1 Rock Honors.

The staff at The Roxy embraced the blog and the blogosphere at large. They’ve expanded their horizons beyond the rock staple that had become synonymous with The Roxy and began booking more “eastside” bands like Peter, Bjorn,and John and started a three-month partnership with Filter magazine.

President-elect Obama’s much-vaunted speechwriter, Jon “not that one” Favreau, has been all over the blogosphere for the last week. Seems the 27-year-old got himself photographed at a recent party in an unfortunate position with a life sized cardboard cutout of the next Secretary of State. (That’s Favreau on the left. The guy in the hat and the “Obama Staff” t-shirt remains unidentified at press time.)

It hit Drudge but did not really go too far at first, but now my friend former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers has written a piece for Vanity Fair on it.

“Oh, what to do. An incredibly talented young aide, to an impossibly idealistic new president, gets caught doing something indefensibly stupid and undeniably sexist. Everyone is uncomfortable. But should anyone be held accountable? Apparently not. . . .

“What’s bugging me is his intention. He isn’t putting his hand on her ‘chest,’ as most of the articles and conversations about the picture have euphemistically referred to it. Rather, his hand—cupped just so—is clearly intended to signal that he’s groping her breast. And why? Surely, not to signal he finds her attractive. Au contraire. It’s an act of deliberate humiliation. Of disempowerment. Of denigration. And it disgusts me.”

I’ve got to say I agree. I also agree with dee dee when she points out that there is often a double standard when its racism vs. sexism. Absolutely the uproar would be huge if it were Michelle Obama or if he were wearing a sheet.

But there is another element of this that fascinates me. According to the Washington Post, Favreau’s picture was on Facebook for just two hours. In that time it has left enough of a trail to turn into a bomb. It’s to the point now where Obama must do something.

McCain fired his aide Soren Dayton for posting an Obama-Wright video to YouTube — what will the president-elect do?

Ironically, it reminds me of how it seemed when the kids who ran the Clinton campaign were just coming into the White House after 1992 — it was like the Keystone Kops half the time, totally disorganized and everything had the smell of a college dorm.

For their part, Senator Clinton’s staff has played it cool: Clinton spokesperson Philippe Reines wrote that she is “pleased to learn of Jon’s obvious interest in the State Department, and is currently reviewing his application.”

Friends–

Since many of you who read my occasional commentary are, in fact, friends, I wanted to just let you know of two things that are new in my world.

My Band’s New CD Is Complete And Available For Purchase

As you probably know, I am in a rock band called The West End. We have been working very hard all summer and fall to complete a CD filled with new, original material and now it’s done. We couldn’t be happier with how it sounds. We released it at a very successful show just last Saturday.

The CD is called This Ride Could Be My Last and it is being sold here.

It’s already gotten radio airplay and one review has called it “foot stomping, not tapping.”

As you might imagine, I encourage you to buy one! Just click the link and order it from CD Baby, the largest seller of independent music on the Web. At the link, you can hear snippets of every tune.

If you feel so moved, I would be thankful if you would review it at the CD Baby site (you need to register but it is easy.) Listener reviews are one of the chief ways that other people decide whether or not to buy a CD.

This is just in time for the holiday season, and they make great stocking stuffers!

I Have A New Daily Blog

I have been writing and publishing occasional commentary pieces since 2003, typically when the spirit moves me. There isn’t a set schedule and I try to make them into “essays” as opposed to “blog posts.” (Here’s an index.)

I wanted to let you know I have also set up a new, daily (or thereabouts) blog called Brad Rourke’s Blog. My plan is to write briefly on some topic about once per weekday.

If you are interested, I encourage you to take a peek.

I also encourage you to sign up for an email subscription. This would mean that you get a note each time I publish — about once per day, certainly no more. If you would like that, just reply and let me know, or enter your email address in the box at the upper right of my blog.

I promise not to distribute or share your email address in any way ever.

Thanks so much for your ongoing support.

The night of my 21st birthday, so many years ago, I was with friends in the Big City near my college. One of us had borrowed a car to get the group into town. Around 1:30 am, as we were about to go home, it conked out. The handful of us were standing around, wondering what to do, in a daze, while our responsible friend handled the tow and whatnot. It was taking a long time, it seemed to me in my addled state.

I knew what was wrong. “Listen,” I announced emphatically. “The problem is I want to be home, and I am not home. Get me home.” I am told they obliged in some fashion. Eventually, I woke up the next morning in my own bed, with some calls of apology to make.

Reading the wiretap transcripts from dead-duck Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, I recalled that episode. You can see that same ego run riot in his rants about how “f-ing valuable” his ability to appoint a new U.S. senator was and how he wanted more than just “appreciation” in return for it.

I guess lots of us have a little tiny bit of that lurking within us.

Reading over those transcripts, I also realized that over the decades I had been hearing various versions of the same thing from many organizations I have worked with. They were rarely as brazen as Blagojevich has been, but were clear nonetheless. There was the boss who informed me that a particular top-level staffer was the boss’s “personal slave.” There was the boss who walked away from millions of dollars in needed investment over a perceived slight.

No, they weren’t all corrupt and venal. Just . . . driven.

What’s going on here?

I think in order to rise to the top, you’ve got to have a very healthy sense of self worth. It’s a prerequisite; otherwise you’d be happy with some other rank. Most of us are able to tamp down some of the uglier manifestations of this trait.

But sometimes we get into situations where those restraints are short circuited. (Recall my 21st birthday evening, when all restraint had floated away.) I believe that, as one rises and gains power, at some point it’s easy to lose one of the built-in restraints that most of us go through our daily lives with: the disapproval of others.

At some point, the power that people have accumulated forces those around them to, mostly, just tell them what they want to hear and enable them in their pursuits. This can happen in small organizations, large corporations, with celebrities, and in political offices. It does not happen on purpose – I think it is built into how people interact with those who hold power over them.

Regardless, the outcome is sad: When you stop worrying what those close to you will say, it’s a short hop from there to believing that just because I want something, it must be right.

Something to think about, as we climb various ladders of rank.

[UPDATED to fix some grammatical problems and for clarity.]

My friend Christina told me about the One Dollar Diet Project. No, it is not really a diet program. It is a couple (Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard) who decided to spend one month eating on one dollar a day each. About 15% of the world’s population, or 1 billion people, subsists on this amount.

I took a quick glance at the website and quickly became engrossed. I had thought I would find it a bit nutty, a little down-with-the-IMF-protest-y. But it was reasonable. And compelling.

Of course, most popular media didn’t quite know what to make of it when they were doing this. (The couple did their experiment in September.) Inside Edition, for instance, asked: “Is it healthy?” in part because one person lost 14 pounds during the effort.

That, of course, is not the point. People should not have to live on $1 per day — that’s the point.

But, faced with the knowledge of global poverty, what do we do about it? I do work with a foundation that started life as a straightforward research foundation. You know, test tubes and such. Early in the foundation’s existence, they set about to try to eradicate hunger in the world by looking at better ways to grow food. They eventually realized that creating food is actually not the main problem. Getting the food where people are hungry is th issue. Hunger, in other words, is a political problem. Now this foundation studies how democracy can be made to work better.

Some may ask what one couple eating on a dollar a day can do, and ask if it is perhaps a little condescending. But I would say that shedding light on problems like this is the only real way, long term, to remove them. Short term, direct aid is important and needed. But long term change is what is also needed, and this effort can be a catalyst for something like that.

My wallet got stolen yesterday. I fell victim to a rash of thievery at my gym: at least four other guys got hit. I had locked my locker like I always do; when I returned after my workout and started turning the knob, something felt funny. The knob turned harder than usual.

Then the combo didn’t work. Someone had replaced my lock with an identical one. I have a generic blackface Master, so this is not difficult. Ashen, I asked the desk guys to cut the new lock, fearing what I would see. Everything looked as I had left it . . . only my wallet was gone. Other guys in the locker room were in the same boat, I soon found out.

Waiting for the lock to get cut off, my reaction seemed odd even then. I was worried about my wallet and identity, of course. But I was even more worried that my cell phone was gone! And not just because it is a snazzy new Google Phone. It was the feeling of suddenly being out of contact, unable to connect with people when I need to.

It was the same fear I approach a lengthy camping trip with: What will happen while I can’t connect? Will the world fall apart?

In reality, I would have just gotten a new phone, no real problem. And I am already in the midst of getting new credit cards sent out (the thieves had already racked up $3,000 in charges at Best Buy and Circuit City in the two hours it took to get home and get on the phone with the finance companies).

I guess overall it’s just a bump in the road, but it comes at a difficult time as I have serious deadlines for clients and a business trip coming up. I am handling what I can handle and letting go of the rest. Meantime, I have gotten Lifelock.

But, what an interesting reaction. I assume the need for connection will only get more intense as the world comes to expect instant response more and more.

What do you think? If your wallet or purse has been stolen, how did you react? How would you? What if your cell phone were taken?

Perhaps you noticed the articles recently announcing the Josephson Institute’s latest installment of their annual survey of youth perceptions on ethics. It’s something I take note of, since I used to work at a think tank on ethics.

The Josephson survey is always good for some alarmist fare, and rightly so. Perhaps the most striking — and persistent — finding is that most young people see themselves as ethical yet also, by large majorities, report engaging in unethical behavior like cheating.

Most articles that cover the Josephson report dutifully trot out educators who say that students are “stressed out” and “busy” and so they cut corners. Then there is a paragraph outlining all the new seminars on plagiarism at this or that school.

What’s always bugged me about this approach is that it gets two things wrong.

  • First, it excuses wrong behavior by implying that tough times somehow justify (or mitigate) cheating.
  • Second, it falls into the “not enough knowledge” trap: that is, it assumes that wrong behavior is arising out of a lack of knowledge, that kids just don’t know what plagiarism is and so if only they knew more about it they would stop.

And so, I would like to draw your attention to this article by “Smintheus” at Unbossed. Written by a professor, it is an excellent discussion of the landscape adults who actually oppose cheating (and who oppose enabling cheaters) face. It touches on a number of other points, too, so I recommend reading the whole thing.

It’s not so easy, it turns out, to fight the good fight. So many places in public life, we get messages to let things slide, don’t get involved, don’t upset the apple cart.

So what can we do about this, besides mouth platitudes?

That’s a good question.