Announcing the U.S. Open Data Institute.

I’ve joined a new endeavor this week—the U.S. Open Data Institute. Today is just day #2 for me, and for the organization. The US ODI is modeled on the UK-based Open Data Institute, a year-old organization that’s bridging the gaps between government and the private sector. That’s what we intend to do at the US ODI—help government, businesses, non-profits, and individuals make more effective use of the data being produced by governments and, in some cases, businesses. That’ll be done largely through facilitating collaboration between existing organizations and government agencies, and also by working one-on-one with government agencies who need help opening up their data. Neither is particularly glamorous—basically playing matchmaker and running a free IT help desk—but it’s what needs to be done to unlock the annual $3 trillion in economic value that’s waiting to be capitalized on. A whirlwind of activity has surrounded the establishment of this organization, to which I’ve largely been a stunned witness, with particular credit going to the Knight Foundation, the Aspen Institute, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Open Data Institute, Daniel X. O’Neil, and Max Ogden, although dozens of other people and organizations played important roles.

For  a lot more detail, see the Knight Foundation’s announcement of their $250,000 in funding, my blog entry on their site about the US ODI, the White House’s blog entry, US ODI board chair Daniel X. O’Neil’s blog entry, or Robinson Meyer’s especially fun and detailed Atlantic article.

“I put Algernon’s body in a cheese box and buried him in the backyard. I cried.”

I’m a smart guy.

I’m not bragging. It’s not like I deserve any credit for being smart. I didn’t do anything to make that happen. I’m also tall, but nobody compliments me on that. (Good job being tall!) Intelligence is an immutable characteristic that I have at times capitalized on and at other times let go to waste. So it goes.

It’s not easy to understand what it’s like to be smarter or dumber than one is. I have some friends who are much smarter than me, and I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to experience the world as they do. Like height, intelligence is a privilege, in that we live in a society that places value on both. And although I don’t know what it’s like to be of a different intelligence, I do know what it’s like to be short; we all started out short. Although I have brown hair now, I bleached my hair a couple of times as a teenager, so I know what it’s like to be blond. If I really wanted to, I could probably fake my way into at least being perceived as of a different race, sex, or sexual orientation.

Interestingly, I have come to find out what it’s like to be dumb. I am, at this moment, rather stupid.

On September 1 I returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. During the 14 hours that I spent waiting around the Atlanta and Charlotte airports that day, I became progressively more sick, until I had a full-blown case of influenza. (It’s flu season in the southern hemisphere, after all.) Ten days later, I was still sick. The fever was gone, and my symptoms were muted, but I still felt sick. I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t care about eating, I just wanted to lie around and watch TV.

So I went to the doctor, starting to doubt my self-diagnosis. After explaining my symptoms, both physical and mental, he came to a conclusion quickly: I have Lyme disease. (A pending blood test may help to confirm that, but they’re famously unreliable.) I was bitten by a tick this spring—one of many ticks that I find embedded in my skin each spring, summer, and fall—that was bearing Lyme spirochetes, which it injected into me. The immune-suppressing tick saliva allowed  the bacteria to establish an infection there. That initial infection raised a nickel-sized welt on my back, which I presented to my dermatologist, who assured me it was nothing to worry about. (In fact, this may well have been a borrelial lymphocytoma.) Gradually, those spirochetes reproduced, spreading throughout my body, through my bloodstream. Some of those spirochetes have hijacked my own cells, persuading them to produce nerve toxins that disrupt my brain’s neurotransmitters.

In short, Lyme has made me tired, listless, depressed, and stupid.

This is a fascinating experience. Or, at least, it would be fascinating, if the symptoms themselves didn’t prevent me from caring. Other than short bouts while ill—when I’ve actually had the flu—I’ve never been listless or unmotivated. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve never been depressed. And I’ve never been stupid. I’m pretty much neurotypical.

So I want to explain, briefly, the bits about depression and stupidity, if only to capture the experience for Future Waldo.

Depression isn’t at all what I thought it would be like. I don’t feel depressed, by which I mean that I don’t feel sad or despairing or anything like that. I just feel less. Mostly, I feel like I couldn’t be bothered. Left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t eat much, if anything. I doubt that I’d shower or shave. I’d mostly watch television and nap. My preferences are largely gone. (Should we have chicken or fish for dinner? I just don’t care.) I have a very short attention span; like a puppy chasing a butterfly, I’m happy to pursue whatever shiny thing presents itself, until a new shiny thing comes along. With substantial, headache-inducing effort, I can fake being normal-ish, but not for long. Depression, at least as I’m experiencing it, is the absence of emotion, rather than negative emotion. I don’t mind it, not yet, but maybe depression is what keeps me from minding depression.

Stupidity is also different than I’d thought. Part of my stupidity stems from the depression, I think. My curiosity is muted, my ambition to learn more or consider options more deeply has vanished. But part of it is just straight-up stupidity. I can’t really think about more than one thing at once. When a new thought enters my head, the old one simply vanishes. (Thanks to the depression, though, I don’t really mind.) I have no critical thinking skills, little ability to string together a cohesive argument, and a poor recall of long-held facts. I’ve been stuck at this point in this paragraph for at least ten minutes, unable to think of the other ways in which I’m stupid, or to spend more than five consecutive seconds trying to think of them. Yes, I’m too stupid to explain how I’m stupid. Do me a favor and pause to let the irony of that sink in, because if I pause, I’ll start forget what I’m supposed to be thinking about.

The good news is that this isn’t permanent. I started on an aggressive, two-week round of antibiotics yesterday, and I intend to find an infectious disease specialist with experience in Lyme to chart a more aggressive path to wellness. In theory, once the antibiotics start to kill off those spirochetes, I’ll stop feeling sick and stupid. (Unfortunately, the antibiotics will also kill off many of the bacteria that my body needs, so I’ll be having lots of homemade pickles and sauerkraut, coincidentally ready to eat this week, plus yogurt and kimchi, which will help to repopulate my gut’s microbiota.) I don’t know how long it’ll be until I start to feel better. Again, thanks to the depression, I don’t really care, although I know that I’m supposed to.

I hope that, in retrospect, this will have been a positive experience. It’s very difficult to understand how somebody else’s brain works. It’s hard to sympathize with those who did less well in mental aspects of that great genetic lottery, because usually one can’t really know what another person’s experience is like. Learning to understand depression and a different level of intelligence is a rare opportunity, and I’m optimistic that this is an chance to become a better person.

McDonnell’s Rolex.

I want to emphasize a small but crucial point about Bob McDonnell’s defense in this unfolding scandal. His defense is that all of the gifts—$15,000 for one daughter’s wedding, $10,000 for another daughter’s wedding, $70,000 to his business, $50,000 to his wife, etc.—weren’t to him, but to his family members and his business. One of the gifts was a $6,500 Rolex, purchased by Jonnie Williams at the request of first lady Maureen McDonnell. A men’s Rolex, it’s engraved “71st Governor of Virginia,” and it is worn by the governor.

We’re to believe that this “71st Governor of Virginia” men’s Rolex, worn by the governor, was a gift to the governor’s wife? The very suggestion is ludicrous.

As is so often the case, The Simpsons did it first. In “Life on the Fast Lane” (season 1, episode 9, 7G11), Homer has completely forgotten to get a birthday present for Marge. He rushes out to the mall and buys a bowling ball. He has it drilled and engraved “Homer.” When Marge opens it, of course she realizes immediately that Homer intends this for himself. A few minutes later, she’s pondering an affair with a Frenchman who is providing her with bowling lessons.

Marge Simpson knew better. The grand jury will, too.

Déjà vu.

I’ve watched the drip-drip-sploosh of revelations about Bob McDonnell’s with a sense of recognition. As the charges become more serious (daughter’s wedding yields to Rolex yields to $50,000 to McDonnell’s wife yields to $70,000 to McDonnell’s business), it’s feeling a lot like the financial improprieties that accompanied his 2005 campaign for attorney general.

In 2005, McDonnell got 1/3 of all of his campaign’s funding—over $2 million—from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a federal organization that had just been implicated in Jack Abramoff’s money-laundering scheme. McDonnell wouldn’t disclose his donors, despite having declared that every donor to his campaign should be public. I knew full well who the donors were—big tobacco, big oil, casinos, and payday loan companies—as, indeed, ultimately proved to be the case. Never mind the truth, McDonnell went on the radio to denounce me, accusing me of being part of a “grand conspiracy.” McDonnell’s actions were universally condemned by editorial boards. Just a few months later, after I’d been proven correct, McDonnell had a bill introduced to close the hole he’d exploited, and the law now reflects that. So, McDonnell skirted the law, then lied about it, then confessed to it, and finally—having no further use for the loophole—called for the law to be amended.

Bob McDonnell is going through the same steps now as he did eight years ago:

1. Deny the allegations.
2. Confess to the allegations.
3. Claim that he’s within the letter of the law.
4. Call for the law to be amended to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

In fact, he’s already gone through all of these four steps, but in much less time than eight years ago. This time, of course, a grand jury has been convened, so shit got real pretty fast, accelerating the McDonnell Denial Cycle.

The Washington Post editorial board wins the Most Prescient award for their October 27, 2005 editorial about McDonnell:

If he wins on Nov. 8, he’ll become Virginia’s foremost law enforcement official. Yet as things stand, he would enter office tainted, complicit in ignoring the state law that insists the public should know where candidates get their cash. If he approaches this law with a wink and a nod, why should he be trusted to enforce the others?

Bob McDonnell, on the other hand, wins the Least Self-Aware award:

An agitated McDonnell said the scrutiny has been disappointing.

“Thirty-seven years–no one’s raised questions about my integrity or my character,” he said.

Anybody who’s been paying attention should have seen this coming, or at least its strong possibility. Except for Bob McDonnell. To be fair, though, he may not be paying attention.

Bullshittery and bad candidates.

There’s something about an election that turns people into liars.

Once upon a time, there was a relatively small cohort of people who had a public stake in an election. Those people would insist that their candidate was great—totally perfect, if the truth be told—no matter how lousy that they really thought that the candidate was. Election day would come and go and, if their guy lost, they’d say to their peers, quietly, “I never really liked the guy anyway.” And in retrospect, their bullshittery would be described as “spin,” a polite way to say “lying by people who are already known to be liars.”

Today, thanks to social media, we have millions of people who have a chosen political candidate, a desire to promote that candidate, and an audience of hundreds or thousands of people to whom they can spread their message. Unfortunately, bullshittery has accompanied this growth, meaning that we have more bullshitters than ever. But now they have a credulous audience, people who are not aware that what they’re saying is bullshit. (I’m using here my very specific definition of “bullshit”: a false assertion that both the speaker and listener know to be false.) I do not include in this group people who are paid to promote a candidate or a party, provided that they have the good sense to leave their friends and family out of their bullshitting.

E.W. Jackson, the Republican Party’s train wreck of a lieutenant governor candidate, is Exhibit A. No rational person could look at his candidacy and think this is a good idea. This is not a debatable point. Anybody rational who would debate that point now would concede privately that they’re bullshitting, and is liable to do so publicly come November.

We have a word for people who say things that are blatantly untrue: liars. And this is how these folks are perceived by most folks in their audiences when they make foolish claims about candidates, and especially when they recant post-election. If you think a candidate sucks, say so, or say nothing at all. To do otherwise is to support the continuation of a broken political system and to broadcast to your friends and family this message: I am a liar.

Ethics training in the governor’s office.

The ethics records that the attorney general’s office refuses to give me didn’t present an obstacle for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s office. Here are the records of when the employees of that office—including Gov. McDonnell—have received their legally-mandated ethics training:

(Because employees have come and gone during the prescribed period, some have received training in other branches of government. Others received training as a part of their continuing education requirement by the state bar.)

I FOIAed these records in response to the ethics questions surrounding the governor and the AG’s relationship with Star Scientific. It looks to me like McDonnell and his employees are receiving the required training. Whether Cuccinelli and his employees are is, apparently, a state secret.

A Virginia campaign finance API.

Last year, I wrote here that I was working on an open-source campaign finance parser for Virginia State Board of Elections data. Thanks to the good work of the folks at the SBE, who are making enormous advances in opening up their data, I’ve been able to make some great progress on this recently. That open-source project, named “Saberva,” is now a fully-functioning program. When run, it gathers a host of data from the State Board of Elections’ great new campaign finance site and saves it all as a series of machine-readable JSON files. (And a simple CSV file of basic committee data, which is more useful for some folks.) The program is running on Open Virginia, which means that, at long last, Virginia has an API and bulk downloads for campaign finance data.

This is now the source of Richmond Sunlight‘s campaign finance data about each candidate (currently limited to their cash-on-hand and a link to their most recent filing), which provides me with a good incentive to continue to improve it.

If you’ve got ideas for how to improve this still-young project, you’re welcome to comment here, open a ticket on GitHub, or make a pull request. Hate it, and want to copy it and make your own, radically different version? Fork it! It’s released under the MIT License, so you can do anything you want with it. I look forward to seeing where this goes.