July 28, 2013
Denial this deep holds a kind of fascination for me.
I know you don’t want to hear about Mitt Romney but how about the weird psychological spectacle of massive denial in public figures. Does that interest you at all?
A vivid example came ‘round today in an excerpt of a new book by Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s most experienced political reporter. His chronicle of campaign 2012 will be out next month. In late January Balz went to visit Mitt Romney to interview him. Of course, the topic of the “47 percent” video came up. Romney still cannot accept the reality of what he said. He’s not even close.
I expected him to be somewhere in the vicinity of, “I know what I meant to say, but when I listen to the tape I clearly said something else.” Maybe not all the way there, but on the way to reconciling himself to his actual words. But he isn’t on the way. He’s actually going backwards. He tried to convince Dan Balz that everything we know about the 47 percent video is just “perception,” that when you read the words themselves that perception is contradicted.
In reality it’s the reverse. His deluded perception is completely unsupported by the words themselves. Here’s what Romney told Balz, followed by the transcript of the 47 percent video. The bold-ing is mine. Romney starts out in semi-normal territory: the difference between what he meant to say and what people now perceive him to have said:

"That wasn’t what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.” I interjected, “But when you said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility — ” Before I finished, he jumped in. “Actually, I didn’t say that. . . .That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”
Scanning his notes on an iPad, he began to read a long quotation, offering commentary as he read. At one point, he focused on the question posed at the Florida fundraiser.“Audience member: ‘For the last three years, all of us have been told this, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it in two months before the elections, to convince everyone you’ve got to take care of yourself?’ And I’m saying that isn’t my job. In two months, my job is to get the people in the middle. But this was perceived as, ‘Oh, he’s saying 47 percent of the people he doesn’t care about or he’s insensitive to or they don’t care — they don’t take responsibility for their life.’ No, no. I’m saying 47 percent of the people don’t pay taxes and therefore they don’t warm to our tax message. But the people who are voting for the president, my job isn’t to try and get them. My job is to get the people in the middle. And I go on and say that. Take a look. Look at the full quote. But I realized, look, perception is reality. The perception is I’m saying I don’t care about 47 percent of the people or something of that nature, and that’s simply wrong.”

So according to Romney, he didn’t say there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility for their lives. And now let’s look at the full quote, his actual words to see how deep this denial runs:

Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?
Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…

To many people I discuss this sort of thing with, there’s nothing to discuss. Romney is simply lying about what he said, and he’s not very good at it. But this isn’t lying. Lying is trying to conceal what happened with an untruth. The truth of what Romney said is already out there. He knows it’s out there. But he cannot accept it. The right name for that is denial, not lying. And what a spectacle it remains! 
The only journalist I know of who’s ventured seriously into Romney’s capacity for denial is Frank Rich in this essay from January of 2012. Rich argued that Romney’s Mormon faith was foundational to who he is and how he thinks, but the campaign he ran had placed it off limits. This meant that deep denial was a constitutive feature of the Romney-for-president project. Rich wrote:

We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

"This is something else." I agree with that. Denial was at the heart of the Romney campaign and it remains there.
Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

Denial this deep holds a kind of fascination for me.

I know you don’t want to hear about Mitt Romney but how about the weird psychological spectacle of massive denial in public figures. Does that interest you at all?

A vivid example came ‘round today in an excerpt of a new book by Dan Balz, the Washington Post’s most experienced political reporter. His chronicle of campaign 2012 will be out next month. In late January Balz went to visit Mitt Romney to interview him. Of course, the topic of the “47 percent” video came up. Romney still cannot accept the reality of what he said. He’s not even close.

I expected him to be somewhere in the vicinity of, “I know what I meant to say, but when I listen to the tape I clearly said something else.” Maybe not all the way there, but on the way to reconciling himself to his actual words. But he isn’t on the way. He’s actually going backwards. He tried to convince Dan Balz that everything we know about the 47 percent video is just “perception,” that when you read the words themselves that perception is contradicted.

In reality it’s the reverse. His deluded perception is completely unsupported by the words themselves. Here’s what Romney told Balz, followed by the transcript of the 47 percent video. The bold-ing is mine. Romney starts out in semi-normal territory: the difference between what he meant to say and what people now perceive him to have said:

"That wasn’t what was meant by it. That is the way it was perceived.” I interjected, “But when you said there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility — ” Before I finished, he jumped in. “Actually, I didn’t say that. . . .That’s how it began to be perceived, and so I had to ultimately respond to the perception, because perception is reality.”

Scanning his notes on an iPad, he began to read a long quotation, offering commentary as he read. At one point, he focused on the question posed at the Florida fundraiser.“Audience member: ‘For the last three years, all of us have been told this, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.’ How are you going to do it in two months before the elections, to convince everyone you’ve got to take care of yourself?’ And I’m saying that isn’t my job. In two months, my job is to get the people in the middle. But this was perceived as, ‘Oh, he’s saying 47 percent of the people he doesn’t care about or he’s insensitive to or they don’t care — they don’t take responsibility for their life.’ No, no. I’m saying 47 percent of the people don’t pay taxes and therefore they don’t warm to our tax message. But the people who are voting for the president, my job isn’t to try and get them. My job is to get the people in the middle. And I go on and say that. Take a look. Look at the full quote. But I realized, look, perception is reality. The perception is I’m saying I don’t care about 47 percent of the people or something of that nature, and that’s simply wrong.”

So according to Romney, he didn’t say there are 47 percent who won’t take personal responsibility for their lives. And now let’s look at the full quote, his actual words to see how deep this denial runs:

Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?

Romney: There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. And I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49, 48—he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And he’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean that’s what they sell every four years. And so my job is not to worry about those people—I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what it looks like. I mean, when you ask those people…we do all these polls—I find it amazing—we poll all these people, see where you stand on the polls, but 45 percent of the people will go with a Republican, and 48 or 4…

To many people I discuss this sort of thing with, there’s nothing to discuss. Romney is simply lying about what he said, and he’s not very good at it. But this isn’t lying. Lying is trying to conceal what happened with an untruth. The truth of what Romney said is already out there. He knows it’s out there. But he cannot accept it. The right name for that is denial, not lying. And what a spectacle it remains! 

The only journalist I know of who’s ventured seriously into Romney’s capacity for denial is Frank Rich in this essay from January of 2012. Rich argued that Romney’s Mormon faith was foundational to who he is and how he thinks, but the campaign he ran had placed it off limits. This meant that deep denial was a constitutive feature of the Romney-for-president project. Rich wrote:

We’re used to politicians who camouflage their real views about issues, or who practice fraud in their backroom financial and political deal-making, but this is something else. Romney’s very public persona feels like a hoax because it has been so elaborately contrived to keep his core identity under wraps.

"This is something else." I agree with that. Denial was at the heart of the Romney campaign and it remains there.

Photo credit Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons.

July 3, 2013
CNN makes its priorities clear. 
A trial like the Zimmerman case in Florida is like a TV mini-series in which the writers and actors don’t get paid. Meanwhile, epochal world events - the kind CNN is supposed to dominate the coverage of - unfold in a little box on the lower right.
CNN has a sister channel, Headline News, which specializes in lurid or flashpoint trials, but that’s not good enough for its new president, Jeff Zucker. He wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.

CNN makes its priorities clear. 

A trial like the Zimmerman case in Florida is like a TV mini-series in which the writers and actors don’t get paid. Meanwhile, epochal world events - the kind CNN is supposed to dominate the coverage of - unfold in a little box on the lower right.

CNN has a sister channel, Headline News, which specializes in lurid or flashpoint trials, but that’s not good enough for its new president, Jeff Zucker. He wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.

June 5, 2013
This “contract with viewers” is a real document— both a promise and code of conduct published by local news station WDRB, the FOX affiliate in Louisville, KY.
Doesn’t mean they’ll actually do any of this. Just that they told the community they would. They said they will dial down the phony excitement. They promised a less hysterical and more rational newscast.
Probability that it’s just PR: very high. Significance if it isn’t: also high.

This “contract with viewers” is a real document— both a promise and code of conduct published by local news station WDRB, the FOX affiliate in Louisville, KY.

Doesn’t mean they’ll actually do any of this. Just that they told the community they would. They said they will dial down the phony excitement. They promised a less hysterical and more rational newscast.

Probability that it’s just PR: very high. Significance if it isn’t: also high.

April 28, 2013
"I admire their commitment to cover all sides of the story just in case one of them happens to be accurate."

That’s what Obama said about CNN at last night’s White House Correspondents Association dinner.

Let me explain why that is such a great line. CNN sees itself as “in the middle” between left and right, MSNBC and Fox. Just recently, in fact, CNN president Jeff Zucker praised the middle as the place to be. But CNN also sees itself as a great newsgathering organization that is all about truthtelling rather than ideology. “Keeping them honest,” as Anderson Cooper, face of the brand, likes to say. 

Put them together and what do you have? Keep ‘em honest, but stay in the middle. Which doesn’t work. For what happens when one side is BS-ing us more than the other? What happens when independent and honest reporting shows that these people on this side are mostly right in what they’re saying, and those people on that side are distorting the case?

CNN wants to believe, tries to believe and I think does believe that this problem does not exist. Therefore we have to remind them about it, because it does exist. And that’s what Obama did: “cover all sides of the story just in case one of them happens to be accurate” is saying to CNN: Accuracy and truthtelling will be sacrificed to your ideology— the middle, no matter what it takes.

March 29, 2013
Use this before you click “share” or “publish.”
The series: Social media wiz shares wizdom.

Use this before you click “share” or “publish.”

The series: Social media wiz shares wizdom.

March 25, 2013
How to make something go viral.
(From my series of pro tips on online effectiveness….)

How to make something go viral.

(From my series of pro tips on online effectiveness….)

March 24, 2013
I’ve decided to reveal my own SEO secrets. Here’s my top pro tip.

I’ve decided to reveal my own SEO secrets. Here’s my top pro tip.

January 14, 2013
When to reflect on decisions made that are now entangled in the suicide of Aaron Swartz.
Contrast these quotes.
MIT president L. Rafael Reif:
"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."
For the university, now is the time to reflect.
United States Attorney, District of Massachusetts
"We want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time," Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said in an email to the Los Angeles Times on Sunday when asked for reaction to the family’s comments.
The government: We decline to reflect. Now is not the time.
The family of Aaron Swartz, January 13.
"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death."
The family: Our son is dead. We make public these reflections.
Photo credit: Idandersen, Creative Commons license. For my own reflections on Aaron’s death go here.

When to reflect on decisions made that are now entangled in the suicide of Aaron Swartz.

Contrast these quotes.

MIT president L. Rafael Reif:

"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it."

For the university, now is the time to reflect.

United States Attorney, District of Massachusetts

"We want to respect the privacy of the family and do not feel it is appropriate to comment on the case at this time," Christina DiIorio-Sterling, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said in an email to the Los Angeles Times on Sunday when asked for reaction to the family’s comments.

The government: We decline to reflect. Now is not the time.

The family of Aaron Swartz, January 13.

"Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death."

The family: Our son is dead. We make public these reflections.

Photo credit: Idandersen, Creative Commons license. For my own reflections on Aaron’s death go here.

January 13, 2013
"If someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit…"
Since Saturday morning I have been deeply affected by Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide at age 26. Because I never met him, this reaction has taken me by surprise, and I am trying to explain to myself why I was on the verge of tears all day and dreamed about him all night.
I think part of it is that he was the same age as many of my graduate students. In the same way that you imagine, “what if that was my child?” after a school shooting, I could almost imagine what the suicide of one of my students would mean to me. Another part was the point stressed by Lawrence Lessig and Glenn Greenwald in their columns on Aaron: that this person of immense talent and crazy brilliance devoted himself almost completely to public goods— like the RSS 1.0 specs, the Open Library, and the fight against SOPA. He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.A third part of why I was so affected by his death is captured in this photo of Larry Lessig meeting Aaron Swartz when Aaron was a teenager. Here is a world renown Stanford law professor listening to a 14 year-old because the 14 year-old could help the professor realize one of his dreams. And he did. Swartz was the initial architect of Creative Commons, the licensing system that has done so much for knowledge sharing on the web. Aaron had lots of substitute parents looking out for him, Lessig included, but he also looked out for them in a lot of the work he did. Then there is the utter frustration that the prosecutors who have behaved so badly and ignorantly in Aaron’s legal case—United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her deputy Stephen Heymann—will never have to pay, they will never face any public accounting, they won’t even have to answer honest questions about how they see their actions now. That’s depressing and infuriating, and it makes me feel powerless and stupid.
On Sunday, MIT announced that it will review its own decision-making in the legal case that arose from events Aaron initiated on its campus. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” said its president, L. Rafael Reif in a statement.
I guess that’s the another reason I was so affected by this loss. Reflecting on my actions, I haven’t done nearly enough for the causes I shared with Aaron Swartz. In 2012, I declined to serve on the board of this academic journal because it was not open access. But that is… not nearly enough.
I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)
The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just. 
(Photo credit: Rich Gibson.)

"If someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit…"

Since Saturday morning I have been deeply affected by Aaron Swartz’s death by suicide at age 26. Because I never met him, this reaction has taken me by surprise, and I am trying to explain to myself why I was on the verge of tears all day and dreamed about him all night.

I think part of it is that he was the same age as many of my graduate students. In the same way that you imagine, “what if that was my child?” after a school shooting, I could almost imagine what the suicide of one of my students would mean to me. 

Another part was the point stressed by Lawrence Lessig and Glenn Greenwald in their columns on Aaron: that this person of immense talent and crazy brilliance devoted himself almost completely to public goods— like the RSS 1.0 specs, the Open Library, and the fight against SOPA. He could have tried to develop the next YouTube and sell it to Google for a billion dollars, he had the skills for that, but the only thing that really mattered to him was the fight for internet freedom, which included taking part in democratic politics. That conception of the good, in someone so young, is deeply moving to me.

A third part of why I was so affected by his death is captured in this photo of Larry Lessig meeting Aaron Swartz when Aaron was a teenager. Here is a world renown Stanford law professor listening to a 14 year-old because the 14 year-old could help the professor realize one of his dreams. And he did. Swartz was the initial architect of Creative Commons, the licensing system that has done so much for knowledge sharing on the web. Aaron had lots of substitute parents looking out for him, Lessig included, but he also looked out for them in a lot of the work he did. 

Then there is the utter frustration that the prosecutors who have behaved so badly and ignorantly in Aaron’s legal case—United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz and her deputy Stephen Heymann—will never have to pay, they will never face any public accounting, they won’t even have to answer honest questions about how they see their actions now. That’s depressing and infuriating, and it makes me feel powerless and stupid.

On Sunday, MIT announced that it will review its own decision-making in the legal case that arose from events Aaron initiated on its campus. “Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT,” said its president, L. Rafael Reif in a statement.

I guess that’s the another reason I was so affected by this loss. Reflecting on my actions, I haven’t done nearly enough for the causes I shared with Aaron Swartz. In 2012, I declined to serve on the board of this academic journal because it was not open access. But that is… not nearly enough.

I didn’t know Aaron, though I knew of his legend, but from what I have read about him he was one of those people (Timothy Berners Lee, the founder of the World Wide Web and Richard Stallman, the founder of the free software movement, are both like this) who believe that if someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit. (See this.)

The cause of Internet freedom, which is very often a radical cause, is radical in just this sense: let all who are hungry eat. Farewell, Aaron, my child. Your cause is just. 

(Photo credit: Rich Gibson.)

November 17, 2012
"Confidently unaware…" 
D.C. Muecke identifies three basic features of irony. First, irony depends on a double-layered or two-story phenomenon for its success. “At the lower level is the situation either as it appears to the victim of irony (where there is a victim) or as it is deceptively presented by the ironist.” The upper level is the situation as it appears to the reader or the ironist. Second, the ironist exploits a contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility between the two levels. Third, irony plays upon the innocence of a character or victim. “Either a victim is confidently unaware of the very possibility of there being an upper level or point of view that invalidates his own, or an ironist pretends not to be aware of it.” (Source.)

"Confidently unaware…" 

D.C. Muecke identifies three basic features of irony. First, irony depends on a double-layered or two-story phenomenon for its success. “At the lower level is the situation either as it appears to the victim of irony (where there is a victim) or as it is deceptively presented by the ironist.” The upper level is the situation as it appears to the reader or the ironist. Second, the ironist exploits a contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility between the two levels. Third, irony plays upon the innocence of a character or victim. “Either a victim is confidently unaware of the very possibility of there being an upper level or point of view that invalidates his own, or an ironist pretends not to be aware of it.” (Source.)