Aldon Hynes's blog

Debate Reflections

Plenty of people have posted their reactions to yesterday’s Democratic Debate already, but I thought I would take a little time and post some reflections on the larger issues.

A key theme of the debates was the need for change, yet there was little discussion about changes of the way the debates should be handled. Initially, I was frustrated at the non-answers by the candidates, yet as I listened, my frustration rapidly changed to Stephanapoulos.

It wasn’t the fact that the moderator was a senior advisor to Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, and later became Clinton’s communication director. The real problem was the underlying context of the debate.

Stephanapoulos focused on trying to get the candidates to fight over non-issues, even resorting to quoting Karl Rove about things that don’t really matter. Some people were disappointed with the YouTube debates, but the contrast was striking. The YouTube questions were orders of magnitude better than anything Stephanapouos came up with.

One of the problems with debates is trying to get people to watch them. YouTube was a great hook. Stephanapoulos failed to come up with any good hook, and resorted to the tired old idea of trying to get the candidates to fight. Everyone loves a good fight. Everyone, that is, who is looking for bread and circuses, and not for a debate about the issues that our country must face.

Since the questions were so bad, the avoidance of the questions actually turned out to be about the best you could hope for. Indeed, some of the best moments were when Chris Dodd pointed out that we are not electing a King, but instead are voting for a President that will need to work with Congress. Bill Richardson, likewise, did a good job in countering the flawed basic premises of the debate by focusing on his experience as a diplomat. We need to be focusing on how our leaders can work well with others. The inability to work well with others, whether it be Congress or foreign nations, is one of the biggest problems with the current administration.

Sen. Obama started off with a good comment about how he prepared for the debate by riding the bumper cars at the Iowa fair. It placed the debate in a better context. The image of Sen. Obama stepping out of the bumper cars, with a broad smile, after having been bumped by Sen. Edwards or Sen. Dodd and walking out together with them joking around is a much better image than everyone standing stiffly behind the podiums. Perhaps the next debate should take place in bumper cars. To rebut an opponent, you have to bump into them first. This would be a hook that might get more people watching, make the thing more fun, and remind the candidates that we need to work together as opposed to the style of politics we’ve seen in Washington for the last six years.

This takes me to my thoughts about one of the worst questions, and my disappointment with the responses. George Stephanapoulos was trying to get the candidates to attack Sen. Clinton for being too much of a Washington insider. Talk about the pot trying to get people to call the kettle black.

No, everyone on that stage is too much of a Washington insider, and it would have been great if one of the candidates stepped up, pointed out how much of a Washington insider Stephanapoulos is and then said, yes, we are all too closely tied to Washington. That is why it is so important that we get out and meet people at the Iowa fair and stumping across New Hampshire, and any other place where we can get into a real discussion about real issues with real people.

Yes, the candidates were right. We do need real change in Washington, and it needs to start, right now, starting with the Washington Press Corp.

(Cross posted at DailyKos)

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Hurricane Season

If everything goes according to projections, Thursday, we will be moving out of Orient Lodge, where I’ve lived for over fifteen years to a house in Woodbridge, CT. If everything goes according to current projections, Hurricane Dean will make U.S. landfall on Thursday. Two years ago on August 23 is the day that Tropical Depression Twelve formed. Tropical Depression Twelve later formed into Hurricane Katrina the gulf coast still hasn’t recovered.

Last Monday, I participated in an online conference talking about DeanSpace. This was an effort by various open source programmers to develop websites with social networking tools to help with Gov. Dean’s Presidential campaign. It was an idealistic group that believed that by working together with our own set of skills we could make a difference. After the election, DeanSpace morphed into CivicSpace, and some of the activists joined up with a new project, The Katrina PeopleFinder Project. Its goal was to create a central repository of information about people missing as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

In September, 2005, Ben Smilowitz “contacted the Red Cross to volunteer and was sent to Gulfport, Mississippi where he managed a Client Service Center from mid-September until early October. While his site provided as much as $20 million in 20 days to nearly 20,000 households, the actual support each household received was minimal.”

As a result of his experience, he formed the Disaster Accountability Project to monitor “the public accountability of the US disaster response system”.

Ben describes his effort as follows,

While in Mississippi, I was shocked by the number of gaps in disaster relief services. I tried calling political and media contacts in Washington and remember wishing there was a group or hotline I could call to report the critical gaps in services at the site that I was managing. The media was trying its hardest to report gaps in services and when they did, they were often addressed faster than those that went unreported.

The Disaster Accountability Project is seeking to fill that important function.

Is this a project that those involved with the Katrina PeopleFinder Project will get involved with? I hope so. This hurricane season, let’s be prepared ahead of time. As Hurricane Dean, already a category four storm, heads into the gulf please sign up with the Disaster Accountability Project.

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Friday’s Links

My blog entry, State Legislative Websites, continues to receive valuable feedback. Knowledge as Power now has their bill tracking system up in alpha test. I met their executive director, Sarah Schacht at Personal Democracy Forum in New York this sprint. She was also at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) annual meeting the other week. I was also interested to see that Quintus Jett is on their board. I’ve known Quintus for several years through grassroots organizing. Knowledge as Power is a site well worth watching.

Karl Kutz, who blogs at The Thicket, the blog of the NCSL, wrote me to point out their database of state legislative websites. It is a great resource, and I encourage everyone to go out and find out about your state’s legislative website, and how it compares to other sites. He also has http://ncsl.typepad.com/the_thicket/2007/08/lost-in-the-thi.html >a great summary of what happened at the NCSL annual meeting.

The court date is rapidly approaching for the Avery Doninger case. Andy Thibault continues to ferret out information about the case. A good starting point is his entry Burlington Taxpayer Outraged by Spending for Legal Fees. Be sure to follow the links about the big shell game and the FOI requests.

In lighter news, BL Ochman points us to Bradley’s Blog. Bradley is a black Labrador retriever who is up for adoption at the North Shore Animal League. If our life wasn’t so chaotic right now, I’d consider adopting Bradley. I think it is great to see blogs of pets up for adoption and I hope that whomever adopts Bradley will help him continue blogging.

Two other sites recently popped up on my radar, but I haven’t had a chance to explore them yet. The first is the Disaster Accountability Project. I haven’t had time to explore it yet, but on first glance, it looks like a site worth watching.

The other site is the Bridgeport Area Youth Ministries (BAYM). I was searching around to see who is doing interesting things with digital divide issues in Fairfield County. BAYM teaches teens in Bridgeport how to repair and use computers. When the dust settles a little, I want to find out more about them.

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Searching for teachable moments

Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.
- Rafiki, in The Lion King

I’ve received several interesting emails over the past few days from various people with different interests in the case of Avery Doninger, the 16 year old class secretary who was forced out of office and forbidden to run for re-election because of derogatory comments she had made online about the school administration. If I were to find a single theme from them, it would be Rafiki’s quote from the Lion King.

A noted Connecticut journalist wrote me saying,

I'm afraid that school administrators are, by definition, impossibly stupid and officious. This kind of gratuitous censorship and bullying happens all the time almost everywhere and has been happening since before I was in high school. Indeed, I went through a smaller incident of it myself and would pay a thousand dollars to be able to go back in time and tell the vice principal that he could go screw himself because I'd see him in court.

I’ve known many officious school administrators in my time, some of which I wished I could go back and confront.

Ah, but I was so much older then,
I'm younger than that now.
- Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

Yet I’ve also known many great school administrators whose love of learning and desire to impart that love of learning has been wonderful to behold.

Avery’s mother wrote me a wonderful note which included this:

As I reflect on the lessons for Avery (and me) they seem endless. One of the important lessons is about recognizing and owning mistakes. As soon as it became clear that the administrators were digging their heels in, I told Avery about a time at work a few years ago where I really botched things up. I was over extended and allowed a student intern to leave an internship without doing adequate follow up and investigation. The site supervisor called and went up one side of me and down the other. As I listened I realized that she was completely right and that I had over reacted and gotten things quite wrong. As soon as I took responsibility and began to look for ways to rectify my error the entire conversation changed. I told the students that I made an error and how I was going to remediate the problem. It was embarrassing, of course, but in the end so much more productive than trying to cover up, make excuses, or blame others. Similarly, I have wanted Avery to be clear that I am unimpressed with her discourse and language - she can and must do better. At least she took responsibility for her error (on TV, in print, in a hand written apology). So much of this now seems that the administrators just couldn't acknowledge that perhaps they over reacted and certainly they over reached.

The lessons of this case aren’t just for Avery and her mother. They are for all of us. There is the key lesson, in my opinion, about defending democracy wherever we find it threatened, in standing up for key rights like freedom of speech.

There are the lessons of knowing when to dig in your heels and stand your ground, and when to apologize and make reparations. Avery and her mother have done us a great service by sharing some of these lessons with all of us. I cannot imagine it has been easy on them and I hope, for all of our sakes, that we can move on to the next lessons we have in store for us.

You see, I think the journalist was partly right. Gratuitous bullying and censorship does happen all the time, and we need stand up to it. To be able to stand up to it, we must admit our own faults, look for the teachable moments, and move on.

Random Notes

On a mailing list of media educators, I heard about an article in Wired about corporations and people at the CIA editing articles in Wikipedia. A CalTech grad student built an application to track where anonymous edits were coming from and found that people from Diebold, Walmart and others were editing articles about their companies and that the CIA was editing articles on just about everything, including an entry which “deals with the details of lyrics sung in a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode.”.

Twenty-four years ago, I spent eight months traveling around the United States and Europe. This year, Noel Hidalgo is on “an open-source journey around the world documenting free culture, social innovators and global change”

Recently, he interviewed Dirk Slater about eRiders. Stop by and watch the video. Also, if you can spare some change, toss it Noel’s way. Now that Beth Kanter has raised the money she needs for her trip to Cambodia, I’m updating the widget I have to point to Noel’s effort.

Back here in Connecticut, Andy Thibault continues his excellent coverage of the Avery Doninger Case. His latest post is about the amount of money that the school district is paying their lawyer to thwart openness.

The Journal Inquirer adds more to the discussion. This paragraph from their article jumped out at me:

When attempts at compromise failed, Doninger, a community college instructor who has been researching the First Amendment in a doctoral program in educational leadership, said she and Avery decided to bring the matter to court.

From the little bit that I’ve read, Avery is pretty lucky to have such a cool mother and the community college where she is an instructor is pretty lucky to have her as well. If I were at Gateway Community College, I’d probably sign up for one of her classes based on how she has handled herself in this course. I wish her luck on her doctoral thesis and I hope that she gets some useful material for her dissertation.

As a final note, when I was preparing for my presentation last week on educational opportunities in Second Life, I took a little bit of time looking at the Idaho Bioterrorism Awareness and Preparedness Program website.

I’ve been feeling pretty run down recently. I believe it is from all the dust that our moving is stirring up aggregating my dust allergy. I noticed on Facebook many of my friends updating their statuses about whichever cold they were currently fighting. This made me stop and think, how do tools which promote constant partial attention fit in with any bioterrorism or epidemic situation? I remember back in 2001, I was active in a few online chat rooms and when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centers, many of us connected via these chat rooms. If we ever face a massive epidemic, how will people communicate online?

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