Kevin Drum

Is Wikipedia Eating the World?

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 2:51 PM EST

IS WIKIPEDIA EATING THE WORLD?....Three years ago, Nick Carr did a Google search for ten topics off the top of his head. He found that Wikipedia entries were the #1 hit in two cases and among the top ten hits in all the others. Today he did the same searches again and found that Wikipedia was the #1 hit for all ten. This leads him to say this:

What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia — and I admit there's much to adore — you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

When I first saw this passage over at Andrew Sullivan's blog, I dismissed it. Wikipedia doesn't seem to dominate the searches I do. Quite the contrary, in fact. Usually they're only barely in the top ten.

But then I clicked the link and read Carr's search results. Apparently, for searches of standard topics, Wikipedia is far more prevalent than it is for the kinds of searches I do, which tend to be fairly random assemblages of search terms. What's more, my Google default is set up to return 50 hits per page, so even if Wikipedia is at or near the top, it's only one of many hits. But if you use the standard Google search page, it's one of ten. And if you routinely use the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button to go straight to the top hit, then Wikipedia rules. Carr, it turns out, has a more penetrating point than I thought. (On the other hand, he also has a vested interest in making this point since he's on the board of editorial advisors of Encyclopedia Britannica.)

I'm still not sure what to think about this, but my guess is that way more people use Google his way than mine. And although I'm a big fan (and defender) of Wikipedia, which I think is a miraculously useful reference tool considering how it's put together, I'm not quite sure how I feel if its hegemony in the search universe is really as complete as Carr suggests. So for now, I'm just passing this along.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Public Diplomacy

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 2:06 PM EST

PUBLIC DIPLOMACY....Public diplomacy cheerleader Marc Lynch is unhappy over the news that Hillary Clinton may be about to choose an undersecretary of state for public diplomacy whose roots are in marketing, not statecraft. I won't pretend that this propsect gives me the same heartburn that it gives Marc, but I certainly agree with his basic criticism:

I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which "involves selling a message" has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on "branding" America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure.

Actually, I think Marc is being too nice here. It hasn't just been tried once, it's been tried three times. After Charlotte Beers left, the position was briefly given to Margaret Tutwiler, who at least had a bit of diplomatic experience, but for the past four years it's been held first by Bush pal Karen Hughes, who was famously clueless about anything beyond the borders of the United States, and then by James Glassman, who was only marginally more qualified. Neither one of them had any serious overseas experience at all.

Maybe Judith McHale will be brilliant at the job. Who knows? We'll have to learn more about her. But it would sure be nice to get someone for this job who speaks a few languages, has spent a lot of time overseas, and doesn't think of the job as merely a branding exercise. Stay tuned.

Infrastructure

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 1:20 PM EST

INFRASTRUCTURE....Conservative wunderkind pollster Frank Luntz says he's amazed: Americans really, really want more spending on infrastructure, even if it means higher taxes:

Last month, I conducted a national survey of 800 registered voters on their attitudes toward infrastructure investment....The survey's findings were unlike any other issue I have polled in more than a decade.

....Fully 84% of the public wants more money spent by the federal government — and 83% wants more spent by state governments — to improve America's infrastructure. And here's the kicker: 81% of Americans are personally prepared to pay 1% more in taxes for the cause. It's not uncommon for people to say they'd pay more to get more, but when you ask them to respond to a specific amount, support evaporates.

....And Americans understand that infrastructure is not just roads, bridges and rails. In fact, they rated fixing energy facilities as their highest priority. Roads and highways scored second, and clean-water treatment facilities third.

And what impresses Luntz the most about all this? That even 74% of Republicans are willing to pay higher taxes to improve infrastructure.

The lesson here is one that won't be new to blog readers: economic stimulus is all well and good, but infrastructure is mainly a long-term commitment. It's fine to get it kick started in the current legislation — even at the risk of bits of it being a "muddled mixture" — but Obama should make it clear that this is something that will be properly planned, properly funded, and properly prioritized in the out years. That means fewer roads, but more transit, more electrical grids, and more wind farms. Right?

Stimulating China

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 12:36 PM EST

STIMULATING CHINA....Ezra Klein explains why the Chinese government is setting up a universal healthcare plan:

The Chinese have a high savings rate — indeed, an absurdly high savings rate, between 30 percent and 40 percent of income — and one of the reasons is fear of medical expenses. China lacks a safety net, and so people spend less because they need to plan for catastrophe. And if catastrophe doesn't befall, then they've simply spent less. Which is a problem when you're facing down a potentially long recession. And so China is trying to make it safe for its citizens to spend, which means making future expenses more predictable, which means offering health care coverage.

That's certainly a unique reason for backing national healthcare, isn't it? But that's indeed what the linked NYT article says. I wonder if it will work?

Ledbetter Act Passes

| Fri Jan. 23, 2009 3:09 AM EST

LEDBETTER ACT PASSES....Good news on the pay discrimination front:

The Senate approved landmark worker rights legislation on Thursday that will make it easier for those who think they've endured pay discrimination to seek legal help. The vote was 61-36.

....The legislation overrides a May 2007 Supreme Court ruling that [Lilly] Ledbetter, a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company employee in Gadsden, Ala., couldn't sue her employer for pay discrimination because she didn't file suit within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act.

McClatchy, naturally, doesn't bother to tell its readers the party breakdown of the vote, but it's actually an interesting one: all 56 voting Democrats supported the bill, and five Republicans joined in. Which ones? Arlen Specter plus all four of the women in the GOP caucus. Imagine that.

A Day at the Office

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 10:44 PM EST

A DAY AT THE OFFICE....When I read that Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain had spent $1.2 million redecorating his office, my first thought wasn't, "What a moron." (That was second.) It was, "How can you spend that much on one room? Solid gold wall sconces? Ashtrays carved out of moon rocks? What?" Luckily for me, Charlie Gasparino has the answer:

The biggest piece of the spending spree: $800,000 to hire famed celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

The other big ticket items Thain purchased include: $87,000 for an area rug in Thain's conference room and another area rug for $44,000; a "mahogany pedestal table" for $25,000; a "19th Century Credenza" in Thain's office for $68,000; a sofa for $15,000; four pairs of curtains for $28,000; a pair of guest chairs for $87,000; a "George IV Desk" for $18,000; six wall sconces for $2,700; six chairs in his private dining room for $37,000; a mirror in his private dining room for $5,000; a chandelier in the private dining room for $13,000; fabric for a "Roman Shade" for $11,000; a "custom coffee table" for $16,000; something called a "commode on legs" for $35,000; a "Regency Chairs" for $24,000; "40 yards of fabric for wall panels," for $5,000 and a "parchment waste can" for $1,400.

Impressive! But it doesn't add up to $1.2 million. It adds up to $1.3 million just for these 19 items alone, and there were probably plenty of smaller ticket nicknacks too. Plus labor — unless that's included in Smith's fee. Probably not, I suppose, which means this monument to American capitalism must have run at least a couple million bucks. The Sun King would have been proud.

And my third question? That's easy: "Who leaked this?" Most probable answer: BofA chief Ken Lewis, the guy who fired Thain, in an effort to keep attention focused on his scapegoat of the hour. Good luck with that, Ken.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Cheney Speaks

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:28 PM EST

CHENEY SPEAKS....Via Jonathan Stein, it looks like Dick Cheney has wasted no time in turning on his former boss:

Asked for his reaction to Bush's decision Cheney said: "Scooter Libby is one of the most capable and honorable men I've ever known. He's been an outstanding public servant throughout his career. He was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, and I strongly believe that he deserved a presidential pardon. Obviously, I disagree with President Bush's decision."

Bush's decision not to pardon Libby has angered many of the president's strongest defenders. One Libby sympathizer, a longtime defender of Bush, told friends she was "disgusted" by the president. Another described Bush as "dishonorable" and a third suggested that refusing to pardon Libby was akin to leaving a soldier on the battlefield.

Ah, I love the smell of napalm in the morning. How about you?

Obama and the Media

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 9:07 PM EST

OBAMA AND THE MEDIA....Via Mark Schmitt, John McQuaid offers this take on Barack Obama's view of the media:

Like Bush, Obama appears to view the media agenda in fundamental conflict with his own. But now, the perceived difference isn't ideological. It's programmatic. Obama (correctly, I think) sees the press representing two things that are clear obstacles to his ambitious plans: official Washington and a trivia-obsessed media culture.

First, the official Washington view [....]

Second, the media culture: The cable maw must be fed with transient panics. Feeding frenzies and micro-scandals dominate. They fuel the chat shows, opinion columns and blogs. These faux crises and dramas, which usually pass with little consequence, can knock a presidential agenda off-stride or even destroy it.

The official Washington view McQuaid talks about is the Broderesque centrism that dominates A-list punditry. This gets a ton of attention in the blogosphere, but I elided that passage because it strikes me as the less important of the two things McQuaid talks about. After all, there always has been and always will be a mainstream pull in any political culture, and I frankly doubt that Obama sees this as something worth banging his head against. It's like fighting the tide.

The trivia-obsessed culture of the contemporary media, however, is a different story. This is the kind of thing that Bob Somerby spends most of his time railing against, and it strikes me as much the more important of the two — partly because it's more corrosive and partly because it's not as inevitable. Gossip and chatter have always been part of politics, of course, but over the past decade or two, at the same time that gossip has practically taken over political journalism, it's gotten so inane that it's hard to tell where Access Hollywood ends and Hardball begins. It's nearly impossible to turn on a talk show on any of the cable nets these days and hear anything that's even remotely enlightening.

And I'll bet McQuaid is right: it probably bugs the hell out of a guy like Obama who takes politics and policy seriously. When he said in his inaugural address that "the time has come to set aside childish things," I wouldn't be surprised if he was addressing the media directly.

So how does he work to change things? McQuaid warns that tightly controlling media access the way George Bush did isn't the answer, and I agree. Instead, I'd say that he should send a consistent message about the value of serious journalism by providing the best access to the most serious journalists. Not the ones who are the most famous, or have the biggest audiences, or who agree with him the most often, but the ones who have written or aired the sharpest, liveliest, most substantive, most penetrating critiques of what he and his administration are doing. He should spar with them, he should engage with them, he should take their ideas seriously. Eventually, others will start to get the message: if you want to get presidential attention, you need to say something smart. It's too late to for this to have any effect on media buffoons like Maureen Dowd or Chris Matthews, but you never know. It might encourage a few of the others to grow up. It's worth a try, anyway.

Frozen River

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:48 PM EST

FROZEN RIVER....Atrios links to a Country Fair post today that takes Courtney Hazlett to task for whining about Frozen River receiving a couple of Oscar nominations. Here's Hazlett:

In the state that Hollywood is in, I would hope that the Academy says, maybe for once we should just kind of look at what the buzz is here and what people really like, and honor filmmaking that doesn't just attract the affections of a small, elite, effete audience, and really look at what do people like to go and see.

Eh. Hazlett is an idiot. It's not as if Hollywood routinely ignores popular taste, after all, and Frozen River was only nominated in two categories (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actess).

Plus there's this: as you all know, my taste in movies is pretty thoroughly middlebrow. But Frozen River's screenplay was excellent and Melissa Leo's performance was outstanding — one of the best I've seen recently. I haven't seen all the nominated actresses, but at a minimum, Leo was better than Meryl Streep (in Doubt) and Angelina Jolie (in Changeling). She was really, really good. So go rent Frozen River when it comes out on DVD in a couple of weeks. You'll enjoy it, and you'll annoy Courtney Hazlett at the same time. It's a twofer!

Carona Walks (Sort Of)

| Thu Jan. 22, 2009 3:15 PM EST

CARONA WALKS (SORT OF)...."America's Sheriff" Michael Carona says it's "an absolute miracle" that he was acquitted of five out of six corruption charges on Friday. But it turns out that the criminal code has more to do with it than the redemptive power of God:

In interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were stymied by a statute of limitations that allowed them to consider only acts committed after late October 2002. The government had failed to prove that the conspiracy it alleged among Carona and his associates had involved any overt act after that, the jurors said.

"His hand was in the cookie jar. He was just quick enough to wipe the crumbs off his hands," said juror Jerome Bell, 42, a truck driver from Anaheim.

Sometimes good timing is better than good luck. Anyway, here in The OC we prefer to look forward, not back.