Ten Second News

In the lake of the woods( 10 )

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a lovely post about isolation that’s well worth your while. You should read it. For some reason the title and the sort of haunting imagery called to mind Tim O’Brien’s novel, In the Lake of the Woods. That’s quite a book. Stirs together how we think about truth and memory; how we weave illusion into our past in order to shape our present. But I digress.

The best responses I’ve offered, the ones that leave me tingling for years, can not be done by googling around and then taking a couple of hours to pop off. They’re done over months, and sometimes, years of reading and talking with people, and then retreating into the wilderness and confronting the horror of solitude and loneliness. […]

My work space is deep in the woods and wrapped in a kind of silence that a city kid, like me, has simply never beheld. There is no phone, no cell coverage, and no internet. A few days ago a storm swept through, bringing with it a bout of terrific thunder. It cracked through everything–air, trees, bone. I was so scared to be alone out there–no people, just me, the thunder, animals and rain. But after ten minutes or so, I gathered myself up and took my pad out to the covered porch, and just listened. I was still scared, but it was so very beautiful.

And this:

During my early years of blogging, I thought that the back and forth was actually sharpening my own logic and thinking. And maybe it is. But, at my core, I am selfish and each day less interested in polite, high-minded debate. Perhaps I will feel different when I return. But out here in the great green, I’m not convinced that any of it matters.

Sometimes the endless back and forth can truly hone our thinking. Sometimes I think it’s a little poisonous. Sometimes I think we can get trapped in ideas that we don’t really believe, or in beliefs that are more like chains than truths. There’s a lot of pressure to conform or to be contrarian or to focus on one thing that can make you stand out in the crowd. Expectations abound. We begin writing what we think the readers want to hear without even realizing it. At times I just write because I need to write, or because I need to get something posted (anything!), or because this is what I want to do and if I do it often enough and well enough I’ll get traffic, recognition. All that jazz.

Sometimes I find myself writing things I realize I don’t even believe anymore, out of habit, perhaps, or reflexively. Or I run with an argument too long and find myself floundering, the waves already up to my chin, unaware I’d gone off the beach in the first place. Sometimes I think all this argument shrouds our thoughts, makes us less vigilant about the ideas we’re trafficking. When I should be deep in the woods of my thought I’m instead hammering out a retort. I’m lighting brushfires.


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The limits of doing this for free( 11 )

Will Wilkinson links to this post by Ezra Klein, who makes a very good point:

Fairly few political commentators know enough to decide which research papers are methodologically convincing and which aren’t. So we often end up touting the papers that sound right, and the papers that sound right are, unsurprisingly, the ones that accord most closely with our view of the world. So Alesina’s paper gets a lot of conservative pickup, but if it had found the opposite, it would’ve been ignored by conservatives, or maybe torn apart by experts sympathetic to the conservative approach to austerity, even as liberals championed its findings.

Wilkinson adds:

This is one of the reasons I tend not to blog as much I’d like about a lot of debates in economic policy. I just don’t know who to trust, and I don’t trust myself enough to not just tout work that confirms my biases. This is also why I tend to worry a lot about methodology in my policy papers. How much can we trust happiness surveys? How exactly is inequality measured? How exactly is inflation measured? Does standard practice bias standard measurements in a particular direction? Of course, the motive to dig deeper is often suspicion of research you feel can’t really be right. But this is, I believe, an honorable motive, as long as one digs honestly. Indeed, I’m pretty sure motivated cognition, when constrained by sound epistemic norms, is one of the mainsprings of intellectual progress.

I couldn’t agree more.

I’d like to add, also, that this becomes even more difficult when you aren’t doing this for a living. When you have to fit blogging in as a hobby while working at a regular job to make ends meet, even having the time to read enough policy or economic blogs (let alone papers) is pretty difficult.


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On Blogging( 41 )

Reading both Andrew’s comments on the Atlantic’s site re-design and Ta-Nehisi Coates, I am reminded again of the importance of creating something personal with new media, that blogging is not journalism exactly, and that bloggers themselves are more rightly the “brand” in question than the publications they write for (though, in all honesty, there is and should be a mix – Coates and the Atlantic are in some sense a dual-brand, neither one the same without the other.  Same goes for all the Atlantic bloggers.)  As Andrew notes,

[A] blog is inherently a live process and conversation and anyone who actually understands blogging’s intimate relationship to its readership – and the critical importance of conversation to the endeavor – would never have dreamed of turning it into a series of headlines. That’s what worries me deeply. Not the inevitable transitional glitches but the philosophy behind it.

I think this cuts to the heart of the matter, and cuts directly to why so many people – myself included – really dislike the re-design at the Atlantic.  It’s not the aesthetic that I find so bothersome – and indeed, I don’t notice much of a change at all at Andrew’s digs – but the transformation of the other blogs into essentially archives, subsumed into the larger “channels” and thus stripped, to some degree, of their personalities.  Since the draw of these ‘voices’ has always been one of the Atlantic online’s strongest features, I find this disappointing to say the least – but like Andrew notes, it is the philosophy behind it that is most troubling.  This passage from Coates is worth reading also:

For my part, you have to understand that, to a large extent, whatever beautiful things have happened here, over the past two years, were, essentially, a fortunate mistake. What you’ve gotten is me hopping online and rather carelessly deciding to be myself, to talk to you, as much as possible, in the same way I talk to the people I know. And then basically curating the comments, banning people, deleting, and coaxing until there was a comments section that I, personally, loved reading.

It wasn’t market-tested. When I first got here, we didn’t even really have a web editor, and none of us expected this to grow into what became. We didn’t discuss whether it would be a good idea to have a post about Barry Sanders, next to a post about the Real Housewives of Atlanta, next to a series about the Civil War. We didn’t discuss commenting policy. We just kinda liked each other (me and my editors here) and decided to try something.

In short, none of this was intentional. It was all intuitive. And it’s fucked up, but it’s only as I’m writing this that I’m actually getting that that really is the point, and a big part of the draw. I kind of knew that, but it’s only in the absence of a coherent thing that I’m really seeing that.

This unintentional process is important.  There is something spontaneous and personal about blogging that is a serious if intangible change from traditional journalism. It is also, I think, the most important thing about a successful blogger – this ability for readers to connect and empathize with them. Similarly the community created around a blogger or a project is vitally important.  Jaybird has likened our own humble digs to a bar where we can all sit around and talk politics and culture and whatever over beers.  I have adopted this analogy in how I think about The League.  Indeed, I have come to think of The League as more than just a site, more than just a cadre of writers, but as a community unto itself, with all our commenters as part of the larger project.  The place would not be the same without the many commenters who liven up the threads – from Jaybird to Bob Cheeks to Michael Drew to North to greginak and so on and so forth – the list is too long to name you all. 

One of my great struggles writing elsewhere has been the lack of this relationship.  (New technical limitations have limited my own ability to respond to comments here in a timely fashion, but I do read each and every one.)  Indeed, though I am paid to write at True/Slant, I find myself devoting more time and energy to my writing here – and not just because it is a project that I helped start and continue to help shape, but because of this ongoing conversation we have gotten ourselves into – I can only frequent so many bars, I suppose, and this is my bar of choice.  (I know there is some crossover between commenters here and at True/Slant, but to be honest the comment system there is somewhat inhospitable.  And I dislike, perhaps, being just one of several hundred writers, whereas here I feel like I am part of a team, or at least a band of misfits…)  There is something organic about it that I enjoy.  I can anticipate who will be sitting where and drinking what, and who will storm out angry and who will chuckle at the antics and so forth.   And part of this is the site design, how we have worked to make the comments an integral part of this site, how we have kept the site fairly clean and ad-free, and so forth.  Perhaps it is also human nature to seek out communities (and bars) which we feel comfortable in. 

However, one of our original intentions with this site was to create a place where sustained, internal dialogue between writers, commenters, and guest-writers could be nurtured and grow into something rather unlike anything else on the interwebs.  I think, to some degree, in our push to increase traffic, to link to (and be linked by in return) Really Important Bloggers, we have let that part of our mission fall to the wayside.  I know others here have expressed a similar sense that this is the case.  Whether this has been an inevitable side-effect to creating a successful site, or to simply running out of things to talk to each other about is hard to say.  For my own part, I know that I focused a great deal on increasing traffic, on making the site as good as possible – and I admit to feeling a bit of a rush when I’d pick up a link from the Dish or get a good response from Larison or other bloggers who I had read and admired.

Either way, I wonder how the readers and commenters feel about this (not that the two groups, I hope, are mutually exclusive).  After just over a year, it’s incredible to see how far this blog has come.  We have gained and lost bloggers.  We are still (I hope, and believe) producing good, interesting, and relatively unique content.  We are still ad-free and entirely self-funded or funded by the generosity of the best damn commenters on the internet.  But have we lost some of that original vision?  Some of that original intent?  I would be interested to hear from both writers here and commenters on how, if at all, we could right the ship, reorient to bring back some of the conversational aspects of the original mission.  Make the site even better and more lasting.  We ditched the “series” function, but perhaps went too far in ditching the concept of series altogether.

In other words, this is a space to talk about blogging, this blog in particular, how it is doing things right and how it is doing things wrong, and so forth.  Thanks.

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Happy New Year( 4 )

I hope everyone is enjoying a safe and happy holiday. At the risk of lapsing into blog-cliché, this site wouldn’t be nearly as fun without so many interesting (and vocal!) readers, and I hope all of you stick around next decade. Blogging should return to full speed sometime next week.

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The Evolution of Blogging: An Interview with John Cole( 11 )


John Cole's pets, Tunch and Lily

John Cole began blogging at Balloon Juice way back in 2002, when he was still a die-hard Republican.  According to the FAQ on his blog, you can “check the archive to see how crazy” he was back then.  Since then his political views have shifted and the blog has grown.  The blog has also evolved from one lone blogger to four, the new co-contributors rising from the ranks of the site’s busy comment threads.

I had a chance to talk with John Cole last week about blogging and politics, and you can read the whole thing right after the leap…. (more…)

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The Evolution of Blogging: An Interview with Charles Johnson( 43 )

CJFew bloggers have had quite as controversial a career as Little Green Football’s Charles Johnson.  Johnson began blogging in earnest back in 2001 after the attacks on the twin towers, and continues putting out content at a furious pace nearly a decade later.

He is perhaps best known for playing a key role in the resignation of CBS’s Dan Rather following the forged Killian document scandal.  He also played a role in bringing attention to altered photographs in the Adnan Hajj photographs controversy. In July 2008, LGF identified that photographs of Iran’s nuclear missile test had been altered.

More recently, Johnson has locked spears with many on the right over issues such as Obama’s birth certificate, creationism in schools, and “Obama Derangement Syndrome.”

He helped found the popular new media site, Pajamas Media, though he has since fallen out with the publishers and, as of September, has removed all links from Little Green Footballs to Pajamas Media.

I had a chance to exchange emails with Charles Johnson about his experience as a blogger and the current state of affairs on the war on terror and the conservative blogosphere. (more…)

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America’s Next Top Pundit( 6 )

Despite Will’s take on the Washington Post’s “Next Top Pundit” contest, I thought it sounded like a pretty neat way to gain some exposure.  I mean, no matter which way you look at it, for a young writer, being given even the chance to compete for a column is a great way to get a toe or two through the proverbial door.  So I submitted an essay.

And I didn’t win.  As Kevin Drum notes,

By the way, the ten winners include a Nobel Prize winner, a Bush 43 assistant secretary of commerce (guess which one), a senior correspondent for the American Prospect, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former researcher at the Kennedy School of Government, an Atlantic Media fellow, and a small-town newspaper editor.  Not exactly a crowd of just plain folks.  It might have been more fun to read the other 4,790 entries.

I guess the odds were against me.  I was under the impression this would be a battle between relative amateurs and unknowns, not Nobel Prize winners and Atlantic Media fellows.  I stand corrected.

Here are the winners.

In any case, here’s what I submitted, in case you’re interested: (more…)

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Dear Washington Post,( 16 )

Look, I get it. Sales figures are declining. Online ad revenue sucks. This whole fragmented media environment thing hasn’t exactly been gangbusters for business. That Internet video experiment flamed out faster than a Roman candle.

But I can’t hate on you for experimenting. Times are tough, and a new business environment probably demands a new approach to news gathering. And I wish you all the best. Really, I do. Unlike some folks, I have a lot of respect for the good work you put out on a regular basis. I shudder to think what life in the District and Northern Virginia would be like without Post beat reporters.  Other than the occasional beef with your op-ed page, I honestly think you put out a fine product.

But this latest gimmick is just . . . silly. After a year or two in the blogosphere, I’ve belatedly realized that the last thing we need is another jack-of-all-trades commentator. I mean, we’re dealing with an embarrassment of riches in that department.  Everyone and their mother seems to have an opinion, a WordPress account, and access to Google. It’s been fun, but I think amateur punditry is rapidly reaching the point of diminishing returns. Except for my co-bloggers, that is. They’re still money.

But aside from all the wannabe pundits and amateur conspiracy theorists, the Internet has also managed to draw a bunch of experts out of the woodwork. Think tankers, economists, and lawyers – you name it, they all have blogs now. And they write. All. The. Time. It’s almost as if they enjoy sharing their expertise with the rest of us in an open, unmediated forum. These days, I don’t have to rely on a Post beat writer  to pull a few quotes from expert X on crisis Y – I can just fire up my RSS feed and check out expert X’s (frequently updated) blog for his or her totally comprehensive opinion.

So here’s my proposal. Instead of giving away valuable column space to some schmuck who can plausibly construct an opinion on every imaginable topic in one week or less, why not try giving one of these quirky expert types a shot? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a few financial analysts on-hand the next time a global financial crisis hits? What about a military guy to explain this whole War on Terrorism business? (Wait, you just canned Tom Ricks?) Or a lawyer, to parse the latest torture memos?

If I was running the show, I’d probably draft Jim Manzi. Or that bald dude from Rortybomb. I think you’re better off with either of those guys than a pale George Will imitator. But maybe that’s just me.



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health care, flip-flopping, and drunken boxing…er…blogging( 31 )

Okay, so Michael Drew in the comments has pointed out that I have been inconsistent in my take on health care.  Indeed, my take on health care is one that is “in the making” as it were, and so this is not surprising.  I have moved, and rather quickly (I admit) from support of a public option to not supporting a public option, though nothing is set in stone.  The more I have studied this, the more I have come to believe that the public option would become as much of a distortion as the system we have now.

At the same time, my first concern remains insuring the uninsured.  I think what I was driving at in my initial “multi-tiered” approach was an attempt to have freer markets, thus maintaining our high level of quality and innovation (and probably improving it on both those fronts) while at the same time ensuring that everyone is insured via the public option.  If all else fails – and I’m sure it will – then I will still be glad that people who are not insured will be once a public option is in place.  If that actually happens.  I think that when we break this down to a very human level, it’s important to realize that at the heart of it all is a very real, very devastating problem for many Americans.

My turn toward vouchers rather than a public plan comes essentially from some very convincing arguments brother Mark has leveled at me – namely that there are two ways a government can dole out subsidies – either to the supply side or to the demand side.  Subsidizing supply effectively picks “favorites” in a given industry (say drug companies, for instance) whereas subsidizing demand does not.  It spreads out the subsidy and allows for various groups to compete.  So you still have government helping people get insurance, you just don’t have them subsidizing specific groups to do it.  Since I’m an avowed anti-corporatist, this appeals to me a great deal.  I don’t like public/private collusion.  As government grows, so do powerful corporate interests.  See A.I.G. or G.M – neither would have survived without welfare. (more…)

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On Blogging( 1 )

Felix Salmon has some advice for prospective bloggers. The whole thing is worth reading, but this segment jumped out at me:

As always, there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality. Should you write more, with lower quality, or less, with higher quality? Fortunately, the blogosphere has been around for long enough that we have a simple empirical answer to this question: given the choice, go for quantity over quality. You might not like it — I certainly don’t — but I defy you to name a really good blogger who doesn’t blog frequently.

Often bloggers are the worst judges of their own work; I can give you hundreds of personal examples of blog entries I thought were really good which disappeared all but unnoticed, and of blog entries I thought were tossed-off throwaways which got enormous traction and distribution. Mostly, blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level — and if you want to win the lottery, your best chance of doing so is to maximize the number of lottery tickets you buy.

I think this is basically correct, although I tend to enjoy authors who put out a smaller number of longer posts. So how do you solve the mystery of appealing to a voracious blog readership while producing quality stuff? Without seeming too self-satisfied, I submit that the best answer is through a group blog, which gives individual authors plenty of time to write thoughtful entries while maintaining a steady stream of opinion and commentary.

It’s difficult to consistently come up with intelligent responses to the news of the day. Most of us have our own interests and preferences, which tend to be reflected in our blog output. I would much rather be writing about soccer than mixed martial arts, for example, but that hasn’t stopped Freddie from posting a long meditation on the UFC’s weight classes.

A group of writers with diverse interests can produce a steady stream of new material on a wide variety of subjects. This doesn’t mean we don’t argue – quite the opposite, really- but that’s a feature, not a bug, as our disagreements have (I think) produced some excellent posts and comment threads.

One possible downside to the group blog format is the notorious free-rider problem. But a sense of camaraderie and solidarity can overcome most obstacles, and a small group of like-minded authors are generally averse to screwing each other over. In other words, the League is basically the Denmark of the Internet- a generous bloggy welfare state kept afloat by strong internal cohesion and a shared distaste for all things Slate.

So my advice to future bloggers of America is simple: find yourself a few like-minded collaborators and kick-start a group blog. Or better yet, contribute the occasional guest post to the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. Generous rates of compensation are forthcoming (much like the New York Times, we’re still working on the whole “monetization” concept).

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Anonymity( 29 )

Speaking as someone who doesn’t blog under his full name to avoid professional and personal complications, I think James Joyner has the best take on l’affaire publius (background here). And speaking of Internet anonymity, H.C. Johns has recently been on the case, riffing off of this entertaining Craigslist article. He was also kind enough to mention an old Zizek op-ed I dug up on a similar subject.

So when is it not OK to blog anonymously? If you’re deliberately misrepresenting your expertise in a particular field, I think that qualifies, though I’ve always been quite open about the fact that I am very wet-behind-the-ears, with little more than an undergraduate degree in history and a penchant for witty, incisive dull prose to my credit. Has anyone taken a stab at putting together a formal blogging code of ethics? Now that the medium has matured – and, in many cases, gone mainstream – it might be something worth pursuing.

Feel free to throw out your own suggestions for the 10 Commandments of Blog Ethics in comments.

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comments( 3 )

I think a good blog should have easy to use, attractive, intuitive comments.  This is one of the great failures of blogs like The Plank, which are fine blogs with terrible comments sections.  Yglesias has consistently dozens of comments on his blog, but they’re not terribly fun.  (more…)

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