Category Archives: Work

Request for Awesome.

I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Aspen Institute, attending the annual Forum on Communications and Society. Thirty-odd of us spent four days talking about how to make government more open and more innovative. The guest list will leave reasonable people wondering how I got invited—Madeline Albright, Toomas Hendrik Ilves (the President of Estonia), Esther Dyson, Reed Hundt (FCC Chairman under President Clinton), and Eric Schmidt (chairman of Google) were just some of the most famous attendees.

Aspen View

We broke into groups, and were assigned general topics on which to devise a proposal for how to make governance more open and innovative. I wound up in a group with Esther Dyson, Tim Hwang, Max Ogden, Christine Outram, David Robinson, and Christina Xu. We came up with some pretty great proposals, at least one of which I intend to pursue personally, but ultimately we settled on the need to overhaul the government RFP process, and to create a policy vehicle to bid out lightweight, low-dollar technical projects, and to attract bids from startups and other small, nimble tech organizations. The idea isn’t to replace the existing RFP process, but to create a parallel one that will enable government to be more nimble.

We call our proposal Request for Awesome, and it has been received enthusiastically. Two days after we announced our proposal, a half dozen cities had committed to implementing it, and no doubt more have rolled in in the week since. Max and Tim are particularly involved in pushing this forward, and I don’t doubt that they’ll spread this farther.

I was very impressed by the Aspen Institute and by the Forum on Communications and Society. I’ve probably been to a dozen conferences so far this year, and this one was head and shoulders above the rest, perhaps the best I’ve ever been to. The Aspen Institute enjoys a strong reputation, and now I see why. Here’s hoping I get invited back some day.

My new job and its effect on my blogging.

I started a job with the White House about two and a half weeks ago. (For you federal government geeks, it’s via an assignment from the GSA, which in turn is via an IPA from UVA.) The plan is to take the train up to D.C. once a week, and work in Charlottesville for the rest of the week. I have waited this long to write about it here because I’ve been hoping that I could write the work that I’m doing, because I think it’s interesting and exciting. But the specifics of my project are still confidential, and are likely to be for at least another few weeks, and I don’t think it’s fair to wait that long to say anything, since it affects what I’ll be writing about here. Suffice it to say it pertains to open government technology.

The effect of this is that I will not be blogging about partisan politics for the duration, and generally avoiding political matters. Nobody has told me to do this, or even suggested it obliquely. It’s no in way a requirement of the job. But I think it’s the right thing, for one simple reason: I don’t think I can write honestly about politics if I’m going to make my living working for the president. I could try, but I don’t think I could avoid bias, no matter how convinced I might be that I was exhibiting none. I have restricted my writing accordingly for the past two weeks, and I’m more or less happy with the balance that I have struck.

Oddly, this doesn’t conflict with my other new line of work, as a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation News Challenge Fellow, building The State Decoded. That’s because my $160,000 grant hasn’t actually arrived yet and, based on the paperwork that I got in the mail today, it looks like it won’t for another couple of months. So The State Decoded remains an evenings-and-weekends project for me (though less so with this new job—the folks at the White House work all the time, and I’m just trying to keep up) until I complete this project and return to my prior commitment with the Knight Foundation.

I’m having an adventure.

WSJ joins in questioning Goldman Sachs guns story.

Last week I called out Bloomberg’s Alice Schroeder for a bullshit story about Goldman Sachs executives being “armed to the teeth.” Today the Wall Street Journal joins in. They asked the NYPD who confirmed that it’s just not true. A grand total of four Goldman Sachs employees have pistol permits. One is a security guard. One is head of security. Two have permits allowing them to have guns in their homes. Only one of the four is a trader. His permit was issued in 2001. Either Alice Schroeder is a liar or she’s a very bad reporter.

I figured that my initial blog entry about this would be a clear hit—as I explained, it’s obvious that the widely-reported story was made up—but while well trafficked, my article wasn’t nearly as popular as I thought it would be. The well-known proprietor of one famous blog was defensive, nearly argumentative with me, when I pointed out my rebuttal to the Bloomberg story (which he’d written about). He e-mailed the author, who (apparently) never got back to him, and never wrote anything about it. I’m convinced that a lot of bad reporters get away with doing a crappy job by doing the same thing that Schroeder did in this instance (and is still doing)—ignoring the questions and complaints. The VQR and WSJ fiskings of this piece aren’t going to get anything near the traction that the original story did. This is how bad journalism survives.

Chris Anderson’s Free contains what is apparently plagiarized text.

Over on VQR I wrote:

In the course of reading Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price (Hyperion, $26.99), for a review in an upcoming issue of VQR, we have discovered almost a dozen passages that are reproduced nearly verbatim from uncredited sources. These instances were identified after a cursory investigation, after I checked by hand several dozen suspect passages in the whole of the 274-page book. This was not an exhaustive search, since I don’t have access to an electronic version of the book. Most of the passages, but not all, come from Wikipedia. Anderson is the author of the best-selling 2006 book The Long Tail and is the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. The official publication date for Free is July 7.

More »

Podcast: My interview with photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson.

I interviewed photojournalist Ashley Gilbertson about the stunning rate of suicide among Iraq/Afghanistan veterans. It averages about 700 each month. More soldiers have died by their own hand after returning home than in country. Ash wrote “The Life and Lonely Death of Noah Pierce” for the current issue of VQR, the story of one 23-year-old vet who, after two tours in Iraq, killed himself a year ago July.

Murat Williams’ 1966 forecast of Virginia politics today.

I recently stumbled across an article from the Spring 1966 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review, Murat W. Williams’ “Virginia Politics: Winds of Change.” The author—a Rhodes scholar, WWII veteran, and U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador—argues that Virginia’s conservatism (fiscal and otherwise) cannot hold in the face of the changing demographics of the state. Williams’ prescience is kind of stunning at times. Here’s an illustrative excerpt:

America’s fastest area of metropolitan growth in the 1960′s, Greater Washington, is swallowing the Northern counties of Virginia. [...] Half-surrounding the nation’s capital and embracing already some of the most powerful and expensive elements of Government, Virginia will feel the pressure of growing affluence and the restlessness of a population that will be looking for new opportunities and demanding space for sports, for recreation, for education, and for investment. The suburban spread in the northern counties can be expected to double. [...] To face such expansion, ordinary politics and ordinary politicians are not enough. Those who preach retrenchment in the conviction that depression is around the corner are likely to be left behind in the growing new world. Those who would be niggardly in expenditure for education and social improvement will count the cost of miserliness in later social explosion. Those who are content to see the spread of suburban ugliness without provision today for recreation and cultural outlet, without planning for better communities, will face the repeated crises of the many sicknesses of affluence.

The irony here is that Williams was speaking of Democrats like Harry F. Byrd (and quotes him saying that “the Truman Democratic Party was a ‘greater menace to this country than Russia’”), not Republicans. But Republicans had the unfortunate timing to take control of Virginia politics just as this demographic shift took place, and are in the process of bearing the public’s ire, while Democrats have positioned themselves to be the party of change against their own legacy.

VQR nabs an Ellie.

VQR won the single-topic issue category at the National Magazine Awards tonight for our South America issue released last fall. We were also nominated for General Excellence (fourth year running) and Photojournalism. In the latter category we were beat out by National Geographic, which is a pretty great magazine to lose to in that arena. Personally, I think it’s a coup that we were even nominated. I have to offer my annual disclaimer that I had nothing to do with the material for which we were nominated, though this is the last year for which that’s the case; I’ve had enough to do with the last couple of issues that I’ll merely have to feign modesty.

How massive resistance ended over Harry Byrd’s wishes.

Orange County native Lindsay Almond was elected governor of Virginia against Harry Byrd’s wishes in 1957. Byrd had eliminated five statewide seats, winnowing the number down to the three we know today, in order to make it easier for him to control the outcome of the elections. (I wonder what those five seats were, and whether we should consider recreating them today.) Almond had managed to get the Democratic nomination and elected without kissing Byrd’s ring.

What the two did share — or appeared to share — was the zealous support of segregation. Almond went on TV in January of 1959 and told the state’s citizens that, despite the Virginia Supreme Court’s demand that schools be opened up again, he was determined to “destroy every semblance of education for thousands of the children of Virginia” before he’d give in “to those who would overthrow the customs, morals and traditions of a way of life which has endured in honor and decency for centuries and embrace a new moral code prepared by nine men in Washington whose moral concepts they know nothing about.”

Just a week later, Almond spoke before the General Assembly and, to the shock of the assembled legislators, had come 180° on the matter. The courts had ruled, and it was time to integrate the schools.

It’s what happened in that week — the conversation between Byrd and Almond, and the power struggle that was going on behind the scenes — that makes this such a great story for students of Virginia history. Read all about it in the Autumn 1998 VQR.

VQR talk in the Rotunda this evening.

Tonight VQR is holding an event to promote our new issue. We have four contributors to the South American themed issue speaking in the Dome Room of the UVa Rotunda at 7pm. We’ll also screen a pair of eight-minute documentaries, basically film versions of a pair of the articles, that were created in collaboration with Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. At 8pm we’ll have a reception at our office, which is next to the Rotunda. All are welcome, though you’ll want to arrive early for the former event, since we cannot have more than 140 people in the room.

The Fall 2007 VQR.

I’ve been enormously busy for the past two weeks, preparing the Fall 2007 issue of Virginia Quarterly Review for the web. It’s just about done, and the results are just excellent. Every scrap of the issue is available online, for free, because we’re just so thrilled with it. The issue is dedicated to the topic of South America in the 21st century, a result of sending writers, photographers, and videographers across the continent; before you yawn, give it a shot.


We’ve got articles about soy displacing rain forest in Brazil, trash-picking cartoneros in Buenos Aires, a town of albinos in the mountains of Argentina, Hugo Chávez’s bloody 2002 crackdown on opposition protesters, Chiquita’s practice of running drugs and guns for Colombian terrorists, the inhabitants of the Amantani and Taquile islands in Lake Titicaca and a comic by Liniers about his trip to Antarctica. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (though my favorite stuff).

Coolest of all, the front page of the issue’s web page is a Google map — charting the location of every article, including seven web exclusives — two articles feature videos (the cartoneros and Titicaca pieces), and every last photo can be blown up through JavaScripty goodness to a screen-filling size.

This is the most ambitious web-based reinterpretation of an issue that we’ve done yet.

Participating in the Creative Commons

I’ve explained before why I release my photographs under a Creative Commons license, and I’m happy to report that we’ve done something similar here at Virginia Quarterly Review.

A literary writers conference by the name of “LWC}NYC” is held each year. It’s a wonky professional writers’ thing that you and I would probably find of no interest. At last year’s event there was a panel discussion involving five big-deal publishing industry figures, including the publisher of HarperCollins, the publisher of Alfred A. Knopf, and the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. The 45-minute talk was very well received, and was recorded. Somehow we ended up with the recording, and knew that it could be valuable to writers aspiring to learn more about the industry.

We paid Charlottesville-based Wordcast Productions to clean up the audio, and then we passed that audio onto a woman who transcribed the entire discussion. We then encoded that audio as an MP3 suitable for transferring online and marked up the transcript using the HTML definition list standard, making it easy to parse. The resulting document is useful, but what makes it significantly more useful is that we released the whole shebang under the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works Creative Commons license, with the permission of the discussion’s participants.

As it turns out, this has been valuable — industry blogs and mailing lists have been excited to read it, and everybody knows that they can legally reproduce the audio and the transcript as they see fit. VQR could have retained the copyright over the transcript, as an original compilation of our own, but what good would that do us? Plus, while we funded the audio and text conversion, it’s not even an original creation of our own, so we don’t really have any great moral right to retain rights over it.

The end result is that this information is able to be made available as widely as possible, furthering the mission of both VQR and the university, and there’s a lot to like about that.

VQR on Chiquita’s support of terrorists.

With Tuesday’s news that Chiquita will pay a $25M fine for providing millions of dollars in aid to Colombian terrorist group FARC, suddenly VQR’s forthcoming fall issue, dedicated entirely to South American issues, looks downright prescient. To that end, we’ve just posted publicly a history of Chiquita’s practices of of running cocaine on their freighters and providing arms to terrorists — an article that resulted from our sending Phillip Robertson to Colombia to investigate. My fellow geeks may enjoy the awesome JavaScript zoomy effect that I’ve just employed to allow people to get a better look at our often-great photography. That’s thanks to Torstein Hønsi’s excellent Highslide.

VQR Submission System v1.0.

After hundreds of hours of work, 249 issues in FogBugz, and thousands of lines of code, the VQR electronic submission system is done. It won’t look real exciting to 99% of y’all, but believe me, this system represents the absolute technological pinnacle in the delivery and management of electronic submissions to publications. The last couple of weeks have been particularly exhausting (hence the light blogging). Now I have to push out v1.1 by October 1 to provide all of the features that didn’t make the cut for v1.0. And the churn goes on.

Blue smoke and mirrors.

From the VQR archives, a 1982 review of Larry Sabato’s “The Rise of Political Consultants: New Ways of Winning Elections” that contains some great history about Virginia politics:

One may wonder whether it was just coincidence that the decline of the Virginia boss system occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of the consultant system. The new breed of political professionals had begun to sprout and flourish in California in the 1940′s, but it was not until three years after the death of Hany Byrd that the political hired hands made their mark significantly in a Virginia gubernatorial campaign. In 1969 Republican Linwood Holton became the first major Virginia candidate to import a state campaign manager, or consultant-in-chief, from another state. With the help of this political gun from Texas, plus a sapient staff of professional specialists, Holton also became the first Republican to occupy the Virginia governor’s office since Jan. 1, 1886.

This time, for once, I even made sure that the article is available to non-subscribers.