Article Review – Barack Obama: Organizing for America 2.0

What happens to the most successful online presidential campaign organization after its presidential candidate is elected?  President Obama decided to transform it into an organization geared primarily to support his policy agenda.  The idea seemed promising.  The grassroots structure and channels that had been forged, together with the volunteers that had been enlisted, would now be harnessed towards canvassing public support for the president’s policies.

However, some things will inevitably be different.  First, the personnel.  Many decided to move on, probably due to the very different nature of OFA’s work.  Second, the organization would be run from the Democratic Party rather than just a just-for-Obama vehicle.  Third, the nature of its work.  Instead of the more exciting, fast-paced work of political campaigning, it will be the more mundane, daily grind of soliciting public feedback and support for Obama’s policy initiatives.

There are supporters and detractors to OFA.  Those for the idea, not least some Republicans, say that it keeps Obama’s core constituency energized.  Some Democrats are not exactly enthused, concerned that the refreshed set-up will generate greater pressure on Democrat lawmakers.  Finally, it runs the risk of alienating supporters who will inevitably have different views from Obama’s policies on specific issues.

Surely such a successful grassroots organization is so valuable that it must be kept well for the next election in four years’ time, when online proliferation is set to be even more widespread, and the returns from a good online strategy and organization, even greater.  The question is how and in what form this organization should exist.  Obama for America was a unique organization with a very specific mission.  It is hard to just morph it into something else without it losing something in the process.  Given the larger objective of keeping its existence, I would suppose just getting it to do virtually anything just to keep its engine running, would be a good thing in itself.  But might as well make a virtue out of necessity, and let it serve some useful purpose in the meantime.

Obama has made OFA something quite close to the original OFA.  However, my opinion is that, judging from its results, it has not worked out that well.  A look at the Wikipedia page of OFA yields underwhelming reading—it has only ever done work pertinent to Obama’s healthcare reform, and not very significant work at that.  It has also come under criticism from some quarters (see one example from the Washington Post) for the way it has (or has not) worked.

In my home country Singapore, the government has its own structure to gather feedback and send out feelers on legislation and policies.  This is not conflated with partisan politics and elections.  I feel what Obama has done with OFA has served to confuse.  What originally started out as a clearly-partisan campaign platform, will find life difficult as a platform for government policy.  This is because of the fundamental difference in the target audience. In campaigning, it exists and is designed to reach out to Democrats and undecideds.  In policy, it cannot be the same audience, lest it alienates further those who did not vote for Obama, and receives feedback from those who are least likely to criticize it.

When so much of the debate over the last four years has been about bridging the partisan divide, the net effect of OFA is to exacerbate the problem.  Obama could have done this better by maintaining it as a just-for-Obama vehicle, rather than let it become an organ of the Democrat party.  Better still, keep the organization trained on campaigning and election business, and if he needed an organization for his policies, create a new, non-partisan one.  He should remember that he campaigns to his supporters, but devises policies for all Americans.

God’s Best Intentions

I always had a theory ever since I discovered Hebrew was written right to left.  Now we lefties know the kind of crap that we gotta go through having to write in a language that moves from left to right.  You end up with dirty hands, smudgy writing, and reproach from your schoolteacher for having no pride in your work.  Chalk was ok, ink sometimes smudged, pencil always gave me this silver sheen on the outside of my hand (rectify by giving a right-handed friend an encouraging pat on the back), and writing on transparencies…let’s not even bother.

I’ve seen many lefties adjust their writing posture to circumvent this smudgy issue. Some contort their deft hand such that their hand is above the line of writing. I have seen others rotate the paper 90 degrees and then write vertically (hopefully they turn the paper anti-clockwise cos turning it clockwise would just defeat the purpose wouldn’t it). Me, I’m just the live-and-let-smudge kinda guy.  If people are not able to see past my supposed untidiness and be able to conclude from the obvious signs that I am deft-handed, I figure they’re not really worth me fussing over.

So, back to my theory.  Yes, I got excited when I discovered that Hebrew (one of a clutch of languages) was right-to-left. Finally, a language I could call my own!  Another reason to get excited was the possibility that God made all his people left-handed to begin with, which would make sense for this ancient language to go right-to left—so that an entire civilization wouldn’t get their hands smudged.  Makes so much practical sense.  If one considers that the ancient civilizations of the Hebrews, Arabs and Chinese had their words right-to-left, and throw in Michelangelo’s assertion that Adam was a lefty (look, if the master has some idea of what God and Adam and the angels look like that we can all accept and admire…see painting in previous post), one might actually have a pretty solid case.

If, of course, one could conveniently ignore the fact that these ancients inscribed their words before they wrote them in ink…

And, if one needed confirmation, refer to Solomon’s (reputed to be the wisest human of all time) words in the Bible, from the book of Ecclesiastes:

A wise man’s heart is at his right hand,
But a fool’s heart at his left.

But hey, of course the wise man’s heart needs to be on his right.  His left is probably busy carving words into stone.


Doesn’t this blog look weird? It claims to be a blog for lefties, but then posts on lefty perspectives are interspersed with ill-fitting articles about Wikipedia, social networks and the apparent demise of the printing press. What’s it all about?

I apologize but there’s a method to all this madness. See, I’m taking this course on digital media at the Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the assignments of this course is to start a blog with your own domain name (start a blog for homework, how cool is that? Much more than working through calculus problem sets, I can say that for sure).

Another cool thing on this course is that one turns in homework by posting it on one’s blog. So once in a while (every 2 weeks, to be exact), my esteemed readers (some gratuitous flattery to keep you coming back) will get some unexpected 800-worder on some digital media issue that has got absolutely nothing to do with the deft hand. It will look super-boring unless you are a nerd (you know who you are…those who are not, don’t worry I’m not being mean and neither will those who are take offense cos it’s a legit and unoffensive term to describe who they are…and by the way, I am not a nerd so don’t call me one). Furthermore if you are charitable and would like to help me graduate from the Kennedy School, you could like those posts to influence the faculty grading it. I would be most grateful. (Though by no means am I suggesting my professor is the pliable sort, no way. Not in any way/shape/form. I should probably have deleted this…ah well…)

While you mull on my rambling, I will be spending the weekend mulling over what to write to Professor Nye (read: midterm paper!!). So remember me in your prayers.

“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, by Clay Shirky

Doomsday!  Clay Shirky in this blog post predicts the end of newspapers as we know it.  He says that the “unthinkable”—a scenario in which copying is widespread and content is free—is already taking place, but the print media industry has still got its head in the sand, using their set old ways to try to overcome what is happening around them.  The result is that the industry is paralyzed, unable to plan its next move to respond to what is taking shape right before their very eyes.  This is nothing less than a revolution for print media, simply because it has ceased to be the solution to the now non-existent problem of making information available to the public.

Shirky recounts the revolution that the printing press itself created in the 1500s, and claims that the printing press is now itself under threat from a similar revolution brought about by digital media.  However the primary reason that newspapers are in trouble is the impending loss of their monopoly on the advertising dollar.  In the internet age, individuals and corporations are free to go directly online for their advertising needs, omitting the newspaper publishers in the process.  And what happens from here? Shirky himself does not profess to know what will replace the newspaper’s role, and how, when it is gone. What he does profess to know though, is that the entire domain of journalism will go through a period of experimentation to find the next big thing to replace newspapers.

In his deeply influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn postulates that science does not progress in a linear fashion, but undergoes periodic revolutions known as paradigm shifts, in which the nature of scientific inquiry is abruptly transformed. He explains that scientists within a specific paradigm tend to see things in a certain way, and this clouds their vision, making truly major scientific discoveries rare.  However, when paradigm shifts do occur, a new worldview is formed that is radically different from the old one, transforming scientists’ view of the world.  The classic example of such a revolution is the Copernican Revolution (incidentally also mentioned in Shirky’s blog post), in which the Ptolemaic theory of Earth at the center of the galaxy with the celestial bodies revolving around it, was displaced by Copernicus’ discovery of a heliocentric solar system.

What Shirky describes sounds extremely similar to a Kuhnian scientific revolution.  The last paradigm shift was the printing press in 1500, and the next paradigm shift taking place right now, with digital media the heir-very-apparent.  Those whom Shirky describes with their proverbial head in the sand are the “scientists” of the old paradigm, still steeped in their outdated assumptions and trapped in their confirmation biases.  If the analysis of scientific revolutions can be further applied to Shirky’s digital media revolution, Kuhn said that in the natural progression of paradigms, once the new framework is selected, there will be widespread consensus on the appropriate choice of methods, terminologies and experiments contributing to increased insights, and problems (“puzzles”) will begin to be solved in the context of the new paradigm.  Using Kuhn’s model, I would add to Shirky’s piece to say that, over and above experiments, the publishing world can expect to see new methods, innovations and terminologies generating new insights and “mini-discoveries” in the brave new world of online publishing.

I thought Shirky’s most impactful line in his post is “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”  May I be so bold as to suggest another amendment to Shirky’s post? What we need is good, honest journalism. Now if the profession of journalism is to go the way of Groundswell; that is, if people are going to get good, professional journalism from one another instead of from institutions, then how does the common person obtain the training in order for her to get to the level of professional journalism?  I became concerned that unlearned, fly-by-night journalists might soon be flooding the market.  My fears were allayed somewhat after some googling, in which I found some self-help guides to online journalism.  The content exists. for one is a huge resource for budding online journalists. With a coming tidal wave of journalists coming online in the foreseeable future, what the world needs is: first, professional training to keep them proficient; and second, ethical training to keep them honest.  The resources are there, will the online journalists consume them?

lefties artistic? you can kiss my left butt cheek.

Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam.  Note Adam’s master hand. The Master might have been on to something.

Leonardo da Vinci.  Michelangelo. Raphael.  Rembrandt.  Yes, you’ve guessed it . All of these masters are left-handed (doesn’t take a genius, actually).  For some reason, “they” say lefties are artistic.  Apparently, this has to do with being right-brain dominant.  And apparently, the right brain controls one’s artistic faculties. And therefore, a manifestly left-handed person would tend to be artistic. So “they” say. Whoever “they” are.

This kind of stuff is hard to prove.  I haven’t tested every single lefty in the world, so I wouldn’t know. I’d tend to go by personal experience. And I have one thing to say.

If left-handed people are artistic, then why do I suck in Art?

I absolutely disliked Art (as in the subject in school, not “a visual object or experience consciously created through an expression of skill or imagination”; hence the capital A) since the day I attended school and had to do it in class.  I do (present tense, since I am still in school) pretty decently in school, and whatever (else) I wasn’t good at, I would work at it until I was decent in it.  Not Art.  My Art was abject misery.  I got C’s most of the time, and I believe my Art teachers were being nice. Sometimes I got D’s and F’s.  There was an occasional B and only one sad A ever in my Art career.

I remember that A well.  It was for potato prints.  The poor student, having accepted the mission of producing potato prints for his next Art class, would have to beg his mother for a wretched potato (if not, beg her to go get one from the market), explain to his father why he was cutting it up and colouring it instead of making french fries with it, and convince his frugal grandmother why, having done the potato print, why it was not recommended to cut out the surface that was painted on and use the rest of the potato for french fries.  (Teachers, when you assign weird homework, do consider the collateral work/damage/corporal punishment that may result).   The result (that is, the one on paper) was fantastic (sarcasm intended). I had cut a shape that resembled an asterisk on the inside of a potato (a noble one, I might add, that had managed to help create art rather than get eaten), splashed some paint on the cut surface, and printed the surface in straight lines across the paper that was to carry my masterpiece.

“Very nice, Chenghan, you got an A this time.” said Mrs Chia.  “But you could have improved it by making it more interesting by making half-potato prints on the edges of the paper instead of ending with a full potato print and leaving empty spaces at the edges.”  Improve on an A-grade piece of work?  That would make it an A+ piece.  I wouldn’t dare dream of it.

Rare is memorable.  My vivid (I did not cook any of that stuff up, honest! With the exception of the Art teacher’s name, which I think has a 50% chance of being correct) recollection of the events surrounding my only A ever in Art is ample and sufficient evidence that it was my only A ever in Art.  That Everest, sadly, was surrounded by Death Valleys everywhere else. Now why was I so bad? I would argue that it was precisely my left-handedness. 2 reasons:

First, I could not cut.  (I neglect to say that Art in school was actually Art & Craft. Sorry, Craft, for omitting you.) I always wondered why my scissors always left frayed edges all over, and why they always consistently missed the line it was supposed to cut along.  It was a tragedy that I only first encountered a left-hand scissors when I was 15, a year after my last year in which Art was a subject in school. If righties don’t know wtf I’m talking about, I forgive them.

Second, I was taught to draw by right-handed people.  And how do right-handed people teach left-handed kids to draw? They use their left-hand to guide their guinea pigs’ left hands.  So I inherited my right-handed teachers’ messed (I had meant to be much more rude about it) up left-handed drawing.  By some miracle I managed to save my handwriting; not so my drawing. I recall a concerned Mom sending an 8-year-old me to extra drawing class and I had trouble with still life featuring a loaf of bread. Yes, let’s call it as it is. I had trouble drawing a cube-like shape. Ouch.

So in Art & Craft I was never really any good.  For me, it was more like Fart & Graft.

A Post About This Post

This post is so so late. Too late to catch the weekend viewership.  That essentially means only half of you will get to read this than if I posted this on Friday night. In Singapore where I normally live, the weekend would have been almost over, and this would be getting the depressingly low Monday viewership.  It’s a fact—my stats tell me that people don’t read blogs on Mondays. I suppose there are much better things to do on a Monday, like go to work or school, read the newspaper, or wallow in your Monday blues like Garfield does, instead of reading something silly that only concerns a small minority of humankind. By the way, this was the first mention of Garfield in my life since those shockingly depressing movies he made some years ago. Has his arteries finally clogged on him? Or did Odie finally decide to become a real canine and mauled a feline?

But you know in Massachusetts where I now live, this wouldn’t be that late—it’s the Columbus Day weekend! So there are two more days of weekend left after I post this.  It’s my first long weekend post! Let’s see how it works out.

If you get the feeling that I am obsessing about my readership, I certain am not. (By the way, please share this blog with your left-handed friends).  Though sometimes I do feel like a movie executive wondering when to release the latest Scott Baio (I was trying to think of an actor that people used to know and no one else can remember and I saw him in a Nickelodeon sitcom last night and was surprised he is still in showbiz…this mention of him will absolutely not help to spike readership) movie that no one wants to watch. (Oh and by the way, please share this blog with your right-handed friends too. This equals to sharing with all your friends. And don’t forget your family, you love them too). And most importantly, I don’t watch Nickelodeon, Baby was messing about with the TV channels.

And why was I late? Apart from the fact that I am spending the weekend in the White Mountains of New Hampshire for the long weekendImage, I was conned by my professor into reading pages and pages of mind-numbing stuff, which I spent the last night doing.  At this point, I can only hope that my resultant knowledge of the fact that the Portuguese helped to transport tons and tons of spices to Europe from Southeast Asia in the 15th and 16th centuries will come to good use at some point. Wait, or was it the 14th and 15th century?  Wait some more, why couldn’t the Europeans just eat with salt and vinegar? Sure goes great with potato chips

I read the post I have written thus far and realise that this has become a Seinfeld post (Alert! Seinfeld performs at Wang Theater on 17 Nov! Woo hoo!).  I honestly did have a topic in mind, but if I carried on, I would take too long blogging, and you would take too long reading, and so I thought I’d move on to hopefully less mind-numbing reading and to see some stunning fall foliage, and you might want to continue to wallow in your Monday blues or to carry on with your long weekend blast, depending on which part of the world you live in. Till next time then. Because the one who doth mess around with the TV channels riseth…

Reviewing How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, Chapter 5 Social Has a Shape: Why Networks Matter

Networks have existed for a long time, but we have only recently started to understand them.  From the linear Sarnoff’s Law to the exponential Metcalfe’s and Reed’s Laws, we are only beginning to comprehend how networks work.  Rheingold goes on to write about the social networks that exist online and the ways to analyze them (social network analysis, or SNA).  One way is the strength of ties within the networks.   He also shares his friend Marc Smith’s advice to “be a bridge” between networks and communities and linking them together (see this blog which has a link on the study of connected networks). Rheingold postulates that networks today center around the individual—a phenomenon termed “networked individualism”—and that the individual; rather than connect with just their respective communities in the past; today connects simultaneously with many diverse and overlapping networks.  From there, Rheingold goes on to talk about social capital—what he calls an individual’s or a group’s capacity, derived from trust and reciprocity, to accomplish collective action.  He concludes with a section on the ubiquitous Facebook and how it can be used to increase one’s social capital.  Rheingold’s key conclusion is that such networking and social media tools enable people “to do bigger, more powerful things together.”

Rheingold in this chapter gives a comprehensive review of networks and their strengths.  I enjoyed the new perspectives about relationships that networks; especially social networks; have shed light upon.  A notable one is the new significance that weak ties enjoy in our newly-networked world.  Where previously without social media and online networks, weak ties were virtually dead and of not much use, today our online networks seem to have sort of an hibernating effect on them, keeping them dormant, preserving them, until such time when they are needed, when one could awaken them for one’s own purpose.  Where my high school classmates, or random acquaintances, for that matter, may not remember or recognize me if there were no Facebook, today if I contacted them from out of the blue (say, for the first time in twenty years), it wouldn’t seem at all weird! OK, perhaps just a little bit weird, but not nearly as weird.

However, looking at the chapter holistically, I feel that Rheingold could give the subject a more comprehensive treatment by looking not just at the pluses, as he has admirably done, but at the minuses as well.  For all the strengths of networks and their ability to harness social capital for benevolent ends, these very strengths could be used for malevolent purposes as well.  In this regard, I find Rheingold’s account overly sanguine about the uses and purposes of networks.  I thought there was scope for his chapter to sound a cautionary note about the power of networks and how it could be used to create negative value (capital).  Rheingold could have used some examples on how networks have been used by transnational terrorist groups, and offered some ways on how these could be countered. (Disclaimer: Not having read the rest of the book, I am not sure if he had already covered this somewhere else. I personally doubt though.)

Networks do matter in connecting people all over the world and bringing them closer together.  This brings to mind the Globalization course that I am also taking this semester, taught by Professor Dani Rodrik.  He postulates that globalization is measured by way of transaction costs; that is, lower transaction costs are an indication of higher globalization, and no transaction costs indicate perfect globalization. He proves, furthermore, that in the domain of trade, transaction costs are still some way from zero.  On the social network front, however, transaction costs appear to be zero, if not very close to it.  However, thinking deeper, there is still some way before interconnectedness in this domain becomes complete.  People are still separated (disconnected) by language, for one.  The “transaction cost” in this case; to borrow Prof Rodrik’s idea; would therefore be the effort and time needed to translate from one language to another.  This, in itself, would constitute a considerable transaction cost.  This is where Rheingold’s “be a bridge” advice would help bring about more globalization and interconnectedness in the world of online social networks.