Ignatieff Quote About Academics vs. Politicians

politics, family, policy, education

My father, who seems to have ceased blogging as of late, sent me this very interesting quote from a piece by Michael Ignatieff in the 5 August NYT ("Getting Iraq Wrong"):

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said that the trouble with academics and commentators is that they care more about whether ideas are interesting than whether they are true. Politicians live by ideas just as much as professional thinkers do, but they can't afford the luxury of entertaining ideas that are merely interesting. They have to work with the small number of ideas that happen to be true and the even smaller number that happen to be applicable to real life. In academic life, false ideas are merely false and useless ones can be fun to play with. In political life, false ideas can ruin the lives of millions and useless ones can waste precious resources. An intellectual's responsibility for his ideas is to follow their consequences wherever they may lead. A politician's responsibility is to master those consequences and prevent them from doing harm.

I've learned that good judgment in politics looks different from good judgment in intellectual life. Among intellectuals, judgment is about generalizing and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea. In politics, everything is what it is and not another thing. Specifics matter more than generalities. Theory gets in the way.

The attribute that underpins good judgment in politicians is a sense of reality. ''What is called wisdom in statesmen,'' Berlin wrote, referring to figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, ''is understanding rather than knowledge -- some kind of acquaintance with relevant facts of such a kind that it enables those who have it to tell what fits with what; what can be done in given circumstances and what cannot, what means will work in what situations and how far, without necessarily being able to explain how they know this or even what they know.'' Politicians cannot afford to cocoon themselves in the inner world of their own imaginings. They must not confuse the world as it is with the world as they wish it to be. They must see Iraq -- or anywhere else -- as it is.

As a former denizen of Harvard, I've had to learn that a sense of reality doesn't always flourish in elite institutions. It is the street virtue par excellence. Bus drivers can display a shrewder grasp of what's what than Nobel Prize winners. The only way any of us can improve our grasp of reality is to confront the world every day and learn, mostly from our mistakes, what works and what doesn't. Yet even lengthy experience can fail us in life and in politics. Experience can imprison decision-makers in worn-out solutions while blinding them to the untried remedy that does the trick.

Tova Freed from Gag

elections, reform, news, secrecy, chilling effects, friends, research, policy, legal

Tova Wang, released from her confidentiality obligations under a contract for the Election Assitance Comission, has written a very interesting op-ed in the Washington Post describing the twists and turns of the whole affair ("A Rigged Report on U.S. Voting?"). I respect people at the EAC and the difficulty of their job, but the Wang-Serebrov incident was mis-managed; Tova's comments are on-point. I know the EAC has been doing much better in other respects, like the nascent testing and certification program.

(If you're nostalgic, you can get a Free Tova T-Shirt.)

Speaking of gags, we'll be freed from our confidentiality requirements for the document review portion of the California Top-to-Bottom Review on Labor Day (9/3 is 45 days after July 20, the date we submitted our report). I'll be sure to write a blog entry akin to the reflections of Matt and Eric.

M.I.A. is comin' back wit powa, powa


Picture of M.I.A. with a blue wig and captains hat
I love the new M.I.A. release, Kala. It's badass and both rhythmically and lyrically groundbreaking.

I can't get enough of her voice, the way she weaves rhythms and all the interesting guests she has... from Timbaland (who produced all or some of the album), to an African rapper to a bunch of what sounds like young aboriginal boys. I'm particularly intrigued by the track called "The Turn" which has a 80's-style background and mellow flow but then has a particularly violent chorus: "All I want to do is to [gunshot sound] [gunshot sound] [gunshot sound] and a [gun hammer clicking back] and take your money".

This album seems like she made it for herself, in an art kind of way... and I can't stop imagining her on the back of a flatbed truck, with a full band, driving around in the bright summer sun, wearing crazy clothes and playing all this crazy music to rock your party.

More Uncertified Voting Systems in California?

elections, certification/testing, vendors, news, friends, research, policy, legal

In 2003, the California Secretary of State found that DESI (Diebold Election Systems, Inc.) had marketed and sold voting systems in California that were running software uncertified by the state. In a déjà vu moment, ES&S (Election Systems and Software) was recently found to have sold uncertified hardware (and possibly software) to a number of jurisdictions in California.

People frequently point back to the 2003 DESI situation in passing when talking about the current ES&S developments. For example, Kim Zetter of Wired, an amazing journalist whom I respect immensely, said in a Threat Level post ("ES&S to be Rebuked, Fined and Possibly Banned in CA?"):

ES&S is not the first voting machine company to have sold uncertified equipment in CA. In 2003, the state discovered that Diebold Election Systems had installed uncertified software in machines in 17 counties.

(Kim has since corrected her post to reflect the following...)

However, what people don't often realize is that in 2003 there were a number of vendors besides DESI that were also deploying equipment and software that had not been federally or state certified (or both). The Secretary of State hired a consulting firm R&G Associates, Inc., to do a number of audits to assess which vendors had deployed what versions of their equipment in all California Jurisdictions. Those reports are no longer on the California Secretary of State's website, but can be found via the Internet Archive's Wayback machine: here is the DESI audit of 17 counties, here is the second audit of all the remaining counties and here is a summary and findings of the second audit.

To summarize the summary of the second audit:

  • With regard to election management software (EMS), 25 counties were found to have been running EMS software that was not federally certified but was state certified (3 DIMS, 9 DFM, 12 Sequoia and Los Angeles' InkaVote MTS) and 9 counties were found to be running EMS that was neither federally nor state certified (8 ES&S and 1 Webb).
  • With regard other voting system components, 38 counties had components that were not federally certified but were state certified (3 DIMS, 9 DFM, 8 ES&S, 17 Sequoia, and Los Angeles' InkaVote MTS) and 19 counties had components that were neither federally nor state certified (18 DESI (save Los Angeles) and 1 Webb).

Now, legally speaking, California didn't have a legal requirement for federal certification until SB 1438 (California's paper trail bill) was passed in 2004, which gave us section 19250 of the California Election Code. However, the California Secretary of State did have procedures (see 103(a)(6)) that required a "Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory" to qualify voting systems as having met the 1990 Voting System Standards.

So, in short, it was a mess in 2003... and it wasn't just DESI that wasn't playing by the rules.

Funny, in light of recent drama around Chinese products

wtf?, chilling effects
A Chinese cup, that looks great for drinking tea, that says, Not to food use. Just for decorative

It really is a pretty cup that one might want to drink tea out of... sigh.

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