Musings from George

Civic involvement
October 31, 2005, 6:17 am
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I spent a day working on a Habitat for Humanity site last week, one way of giving back to the community that I really enjoy. But wrapped around the happy day of volunteering was disappointment. I was asked by a leader to organize the day as a teambuilding event, and invited sixteen people. Eight said yes or maybe, and in the end several cancelled just before the event and only three of us actually went and volunteered. There is some level of civic involvement which pulls people in (perhaps if half of the community is involved or supportive?) and below which people can easily find an excuse to stay home.

I live in California (aye, pity me and envy me — both are appropriate, since it’s crowded and expensive but remains one of the prettiest places on earth) and we’re about to have a “special” election. We’ll spend $55M to vote on issues that any reasonable government should be able to decide, such as tenure guidelines for teachers and redistricting policies. Government is ineffectual, so they outsource to the voters anything that they can’t agree on — then they spend money advertising their points of view, hoping that the voters will accomplish what they don’t have the guts (or to quote W, “capital”) to accomplish. Sadly, about 38% of us will decide the issues for the government that was elected by about 50% of the voters. That’s what we can perhaps call “somewhat representative” government — the few of us that care will decide what the marginally representative government cannot, fo the many who don’t care and don’t vote.

Last tirade, I’m always surprised the schools have to pass bond issues and have been surprised when they fail. But fewer families have kids in some of our major cities than ever before, and everyone feels that their property taxes are too high already (we fund our schools that way in the Golden State). Why can’t schools borrow, like corporations do? aren’t they supposed to operate on a budget, and don’t they get income from the government? Fundraisers for a new slide / park I understand; bond issues for public schools seem odd. I vote for them anyway, and I really hope the world becomes a better place as an unrelated result.




Matalin and Carville
October 21, 2005, 2:26 pm
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We go each year to hear a series of speakers talk about their areas of expertise, and are fortunate to live in a highly populated wealthy area…so the speakers are nationally recognizable.

Mary Matalin and James Carville, the odd couple of political advisers, spoke at the series this week. I was incredibly disappointed. She spouted opinions, spin and half-truth for forty-five minutes; he did bad standup comedy for fifteen. The Q&A session was similarly lopsided, with a off-the-hip Carville monosyllable and an off-the-topic ramble by Matalin. She was clearly aware that the crowd was more blue than red, and resorted to a monologue / filibuster instead of a truly considerate presentation / discussion.

Carville presided over some of the closest, and most interesting, elections in the past fifteen years. He didn’t say anything about that. He did tell two hoary jokes that he probably heard in a bar fifteen years ago, and didn’t say ANYTHING controversial. It’s a pity that he doesn’t present the true side of his wife’s story, but that would require that he LISTEN to her…and he doesn’t. They both used the same bad joke (“Someone asked Ray Charles what the worst thing was about being blind. ‘You can’t see’ was Ray’s response”), he by accident because he clearly doesn’t pay attention to her.

 Anyway, I was truly disappointed. As a socially liberal fiscal conservative, I’m incredibly disappointed by our current government. As a thinking person aware of our role in the world, I’m appalled at our interactions with other governments. As someone with a relative in the military, I’m saddened by the loss and destruction that the armed forces have gone through — from the best fighting force in the world to a group hunkered down in bunkers slinging scrap metal on the sides of our newest troop transport, the Stryker, because it doesn’t work … in the most likely environment for us to be fighting in for the next ten years.

The good news is that I went to speak at a high school about engineering, and was really thrilled to interact with a bunch of intelligent kids who care about their careers. Not my typical volunteer experience, and a lot of fun.



October 18, 2005, 4:19 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

You aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but you can often judge a person by the books that they read. Does the same judgment extend to what they read online? I don’t think so — I do know people who only listen to conservatives on AM radio, and I pretty much know what they are going to repeat (I hesitate to use the verb “think”, since they are just mouthing what they heard on the radio). But I don’t think that you could make the same statement by seeing what they have read online. Too much variety, and somewhat less predictable.

I worked at a company called Progressive Networks back in 1996, founded on the premise that technology could unleash a wide range of communication (everyone with a computer could become a radio station). That company very pragmatically changed its name to Real Networks, and Mitch Kapor vanished (he was one of the earliest founders of Rob Glaser’s venture, a little advertised fact…) Are blogs the real “voice of one” that Real Networks never enabled or created?


Our place in the world
October 15, 2005, 11:04 pm
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At the June Gnomedex session in Seattle, I had the chance to get away from work and really just think about blogging and about how people communicate. Online community vs. face-to-face community. The thing that struck me is that the selection criteria, and the reason that you belong to different communities, is very different online. By definition you belong geographically to your neighborhood, you have to vote where you live, you join the club or lodge that includes your home. Online, you are free to join a group based on whatever criterion (or criteria) you choose to use — fetish, passion, heritage, product ownership. How do we choose where to go, and where to spend our time?

Another thing I think about is a blend of karma and legacy — how will people remember us (if at all) when we are gone? My father died young (47), and was remembered by the community for his leadership in acquiring hundreds of acres of open space through bond issues while serving on the local community governance board. The community placed a huge rock at the entrance to one of the parcels, and placed a bronze plaque on that rock with a dedication to my father. I sometimes wonder, what is my rock? What is anyone going to remember me for when I am dust, quiet, gone? What is yours?

Rambling thought number three is about charity. I volunteered today at a community event (helping to sell glass pumpkins, which benefits artists and charities), and ran into some of the exact same people with whom I fed the homeless last month. Very different causes, geographically close, but telling … the same few people helping out at all of these events. What is it that motivates a few to do so much, and so many to do nothing? One of the many lists I read bristled at one member’s complaints that no one seemed to care about Hurricane Katrina’s victims any more, showing charity fatigue…and I have to admit that the urgency seems to have diminished because people are no longer in live-threatening circumstances. Yet many lost their homes, and in many cases everything that they owned (odd fact that the median income in the US is between $40 and $50K for a family of four, and the total assets owned by the median family is about that much…and is mostly in their home. When you lose your home, and it is your only asset, what do you do?)


Commercial podcasting
October 1, 2005, 1:57 pm
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I can’t help but notice that companies have started rushing into online conversations(Adobe is blogging here, Cisco is podcasting here among many others) and it’s vaguely reminiscent of 1998 when every company in the US rushed to put up a useless web site and to build an ecommerce portal. If ten times as many people will read a blog about shared experiences on a ferry than will read a blog about a product used by two million people, what’s in it for Adobe (or Cisco, or Intuit, or IBM, or…) to bother writing commercially-focused blogs?

It seems to me that the motivation for blogging is closer to the drive to keep a diary than it is the drive to have a job in PR. To borrow a metaphor Julie Leung used at Gnomedex (her blog here, we all decide what mask we want to wear online — and from my perspective the PR folks are always trying to decide what mask would fool us. From the genuine (we’re sharing our inner thoughts) to the manipulative (we’re trying to affect your inner thoughts), from the subtle and open to the devious and deceptive, it just seems like a guaranteed failure. Communist propaganda never had a wide readership, and well-written newspapers with little paid distribution have become hits.

Just my thoughts for this morning.