Monthly Archives: January 2016

Cyborgs and Aesthetics

In countless dystopic stories, such as more recent films of the Terminator franchise, robot-controlled future Earth is a post-apocalyptic hellscape.

In many ways, this imagery seem intuitive. Indeed, a world in which humanity has been pushed to the brink of destruction by robots bent on the eradication of mankind, seems like it ought to be rather bleak.

But I wonder – how much of this imagery is driven by our own sense of self-importance? Or rather – why don’t cyborgs care about aesthetics?

To be fair, there are a number of reasons why such an assumption might be reasonable. If nuclear weapons were unleashed during the early days of the robot uprising, for example, there would surely be terrible repercussions.

But which side, do you suppose, would turn to nuclear weapons first?  Would cyborgs, bent on destroying the petty beings that created them, move to eradicate humanity using our most deadly weapons?

Or would humanity, terrified of the powerful beings we created, move to destroy them before they destroy us?

I’m rather convinced that it is humanity which would do the nuking.

More generally, there’s the sense that robots, dedicated beings of practicality and efficiency, would gladly sacrifice aesthetics to advance the end they are programed seek. The future is a post-apocalyptic hellscape because, to a robot, it hardly matters whether the environment is a hellscape or not.

I’m not convinced of that either. Are aesthetics, indeed, aspects of pure fancy with no practical connotations? A clear day is not only a beautiful sight to behold, it is important for the lungs; no matter how ‘indestructible’ a cyborg may be, exposure to nuclear radiation – or shielding thereof – is likely to be costly.

And, of course, is there no value in beauty in itself? It’s easier, perhaps, to think that cyborgs wouldn’t have capacity for such appreciation – that the awe of the universe is something humans can uniquely behold.

Yet, isn’t that the very aspect of consciousness? The very moment when intelligent becomes intelligence?

Perhaps that moment when a computer becomes alive, when it thinks for itself, “I am,” perhaps that, too, is the moment it realizes – this is a remarkable world we live in.

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The Oxford Comma

There is a topic which has caused generations of debate. Lines have been drawn. Enemies have been made.

I refer, of course, to the Oxford comma. Should it, or should it not, be a thing?

For those who don’t bask in the depths of English grammar debates, let me explain. The Oxford English Dictionary, a worthy source of knowledge on this subject, defines the Oxford comma as:
a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items.

“I bought apples, pears, and grapes” employs the Oxford comma while “I bought apples, pears and grapes” does not.

You can see why there are such heated debates about this.

The Oxford comma , so named due to “the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press,” is also known by the more prosaic name of the “serial comma.”

I have no evidence to verify this, but I believe that what one calls the comma gives insight into a person’s position on the matter. Those who are pro-comma prefer the more erudite “Oxford comma” while those who are anti-comma prefer the uninspiring “serial comma.”

Why do you need another comma? They ask. You already have so many, you don’t need a serial comma as well!

These people are wrong.

As I may have given away from my own references to the “Oxford comma,” I am firmly in the pro-Oxford comma camp.

It is clear that a comma is better there.

Not only because there’s no end to the silly and clever memes you can create mocking the absence of an Oxford comma, but because – more proudly – a sentence just feels more complete, more balanced, and more aesthetic with the comma there. It just feels right.

But, of course, this is what makes language so wonderful. Language is alive, and that life can be seen in all the little debates and inconsistencies of our grammar.

It’s like cheering for your favorite sports team: we can fight about it, mock each other, and talk all sorts of trash, but at the end of the day we can still be friends.

…Wait, we can still be friends, right?

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Private and Public Voting

So here’s a fun thing. At the Iowa Caucuses next week, following the discussion and speeches for candidates, some voters will cast a secret ballot while others will vote publically.

In a caucus setting, with its ideals of community and dialogue, a public vote doesn’t seem too jarring. Yet – it is a little strange. Voting, in this country, is almost synonymous with a private act.

So why the divide in private and public voting at the caucus?

Well, first of all – regardless of how you feel about the ideological differences of the parties – they are in fact different organizations. Each party has their own infrastructure, history, and traditions.

We often forget this as we consider them two halves of the same whole – but the simple truth is that at Republicans have a private caucus ballot while Democrats do not because the parties evolved separately and have different bureaucratic structures.

Interestingly, most voting in the U.S. used to be done publicly – and out loud. Amidst what I can only imagine was great fanfare amongst the old boys’ network, voters would cast their vote by publicly announcing their candidate preference.

Your neighbors knew who you were for and you knew who your neighbors were for. Party pride ran high.

Of course, corruption was also rampant, as – pre-prohibition – voters were often rewarded with alcohol.

The so-called “Australian ballot” – a secret ballot printed at the public’s expense – didn’t become popular until the late 1800s. It was first, adopted, of course, in Massachusetts.

The secret ballot didn’t become universal in the U.S. states until 1892. …and prohibitions against paying people for votes weren’t instituted until 1925.

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Debate vs. Dialogue (or, The Truth is Out There)

Debate and dialogue, while both tools for political exchange, are important to distinguish as philosophically different approaches.

To be sure, the two are similar in many ways. Perhaps most fundamentally, they both seek the Truth. Furthermore, they both rely on information exchange to try to discover the Truth. They both require rational arguments, and may or may not accept rhetorical, emotional, or experiential statements.

Yet the two are importantly different.

Consider, for example, a political debate. Candidates not only state their views and highlight points of disagreement – they make the unwavering case for why they are right.

In true dialogue, on the other hand, people share their views while trying to understand the views of their peers.

I am not sure how to best quantify this difference, but most fundamentally, it seems – in a debate, participants try to win; in dialogue they seek to agree.

That’s not to say that debate is bad and dialogue is good. Debate can help protect against bias, for example. A group that agrees without carefully considering all the options may well agree on on something inaccurate or suboptimal. The process of debate – in which each idea is vigorously and equally defended – can therefore help ensure that each idea is considered fully by its merit.

But I do wonder if debate is the best format for politics and discussion amongst candidates. Debate feeds into an “us” versus “them” mentality which here only serves to reinforce existing polarization.

The approaches also imply different theories as to where Truth lies. In dialogue, Truth most clearly resides in the wisdom of the whole. Participants are supposed to share rational arguments for one view or another, but the fundamental assumption is that – if everyone enters this process with an open mind – the Truth will be surfaced through this process.

I’m not sure the same can be said for debate. In this setting, Truth seems to take on a somewhat technocratic air – capable of discovery by the most skilled rhetoricians.

That may be a somewhat unfair generalization of debate, yet it is enough that it ought to give us pause regarding the ubiquity of debate – and the lack of deliberation – in political settings.

The question, then, is: what would a more dialogue-centric democracy look like?

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Can You Become “A Morning Person”?

Someone asked me to write a post about becoming a morning person. Based, I suppose, on my expertise of frequently getting up in the morning.

I was skeptical – can one actually become a morning person? What does that even mean?

I suppose it’s no surprise that there are already countless articles on the subject – apparently, it only takes five minutes to become a morning person. Or, if you prefer, here are 19 Ways to Trick Yourself Into Becoming a Morning Person. (My favorite tip: “nap cautiously”). If you’re looking for a somewhat more legitimate news source, here’s a Times Magazine op-ed wistfully entitled, “How I became a morning person.”

I am still skeptical.

All these self-help articles are written in the blasé tone commonly found in fat-shaming weight loss articles. If you want to lose weight, eat less. If you want to be a morning person…just get up in the morning.

This advice does not seem that helpful.

For one thing, sleep habits are – at least in part – biologically determined. In one 2013 study, researchers used the standard Munich Chronotype Questionnaire to sort participants into “morning” and “night” type people.  They then studied melatonin and saliva samples of the participants, finding the the difference in circadian rhythms could be “detected at the molecular clockwork level.”

I am certainly reaching far beyond my areas of expertise, but it seems as though there is sufficient evidence for the conclusion that it is unproductive to simply tell a night owl to try harder to get up in the morning.

To be compound the matter, there is some evidence to suggest that “misalignment of circadian and social time may be a risk factor for developing depression” – eg, that “night owls,” whose preferred timing is disconnected from what is generally socially acceptable – are at higher risk of depression.

To be clear, chronotype is not a binary state. On the whole, a population may skew towards early or late, but diurnal preferences are a distribution for which most people fall in the middle. So those individuals glibly writing guides for how they became morning people were most likely not particularly night people to begin with.

If you really want to be a morning person, it seems reasonable to give it a try…but if it really doesn’t work for you, it may be best try finding a lifestyle that better supports your given sleep preferences.

So, I guess I don’t have very good advice.

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Political Advertising and Polarization

I think of typical political attack ads as sounding something like this quote from a new Chris Christie ad: “Hillary Clinton will be nothing more than a third term of Barack Obama.”

Or, perhaps, something like this ad from Ben Carson, “[Barack Obama] doesn’t want you to know that his and Hillary Clinton’s failed tough talk but do-nothing policies are responsible for the meltdown in the Middle East.”

If a candidate is feeling particularly devious, they may attack an opponent by quoting them out of context or by showing unflattering images, but as its most basic, an attack ad is a reiteration – often without validation – of the narrative a candidate is trying to impart upon their opponent.

So I took particular note of a new ad from Hilary Clinton which not only names and quotes several republican opponents, but which uses her air time to share footage from their campaign events.

From a marketing perspective, this is surprising on several fronts. First, there’s that old adage – often, though possibility apocryphally, ascribed to the infamous PT Barnum – “Any publicity is good publicity.” That is, simply giving air time to an opponent – even while attacking them – may ultimately help raise their profile while the details of the context are forgotten. Of course, this expression is hardly an un-alterable fact – as many disgraced companies and candidates can attest.

Second, there’s a lot of debate about the effect of negative ads. Many argue that they are effective because people tend to remember negative things better than positive things. But, as the New York Times writes, “negative ads work, except when they don’t,” and they come with the real risk of dragging the ad’s creator down into the mud as well.

But what’s particularly striking about the Clinton ad is that – aside from a clip of Christie telling someone to “sit down and shut up” – I can imagine most of the republican footage being used by the republican candidate it targets.

For example, Clinton quotes Ted Cruz: “…defund Planned Parenthood.” This isn’t something Cruz would seek to deny or hide – it is, in fact, the main selling point of Cruz’s ad, “Values“.

This type of political campaign highlights the starkness of American political polarization. Yes, the ad includes the typical attack-ad tropes of ominous music and poor lighting, but in many ways…Clinton literally lets her opponents speak for themselves and then mic-drops I rest my case.

She doesn’t need to say any more…to Democrats, the Republican candidates are disturbing enough.

I’ve noticed similar signs in more informal settings – on Facebook, for example, there’s been what I can only describe as an attack on Girl Scout cookies going around. “You deserve to know what Girl Scout cookies fund,” the image reads, going on to list the Girl Scout’s partnership with Planned Parenthood for sex education and the fact they they welcome transgender women as peers.

Of course, in my circles, most people are sharing this “attack” ad with the notes like, “Good! Let’s buy more cookies!”

And, in case you’re worried the whole thing is some sort of elaborate hoax, there are, in fact, real groups raising concerns about the Girl Scouts.

I hardly mean to indicate here that all pro-life advocates are anti-Girl Scouts or anti-sex education – but this is exactly the dichotomy that polarization sets up for us.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy, really. I have to imagine that in conservative circles they are similarly mocking liberal paraphernalia, and all of it serves to entrench the “us” versus “them” mindset. All of us equally horrified that the other half the countries feels a certain way.

I don’t know how we change that, or how we break through that. But it does seem like we’ve reached a whole new level of polarization when the exact same message can be greeted so differently.

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The Downside of Matrix-Style Knowledge Imports

Sometimes it seems as though it would be most convenient to be able to matrix-style download knowledge into my head. You know – plug yourself into a computer, run a quick program, and suddenly, it’s all, “whoa, I know Kung Fu.

Imagine for a moment that such technology was available. Imagine that instead of spending the next several years in a Ph.D. program, I could download and install everything I needed in minutes. What would that look like?

First of all, either everyone would suddenly know everything or – more likely, perhaps – inequality would be sharpened by the restriction of knowledge to those of the highest social strata.

It seems optimistic to imagine that knowledge would become free.

But, for the moment I’ll put aside musings about the social implications. What I really want to know is – what would such technology mean for learning?

I suppose it’s a bit of a philosophical question – would the ability to download knowledge obliterate learning or bring it to new heights?

I’m inclined to take such technology as the antithesis of learning. I mean that here with no value assumptions, but rather as a matter of semantics. Learning is process, not a net measure of knowledge. Acquiring knowledge instantaneously thus virtually eliminates the process we call learning.

That seems like it may be a worthy sacrifice, though. Exchanging a little process to acquire vast quantities of human knowledge in the blink of an eye may be a fair trade.

All this, of course, assumes that knowledge is little more than a vast quantity of data. Perhaps more than a collection of facts, but still capable of being condensed down into a complex series of statistics.

There’s this funny, thing, though – that is arguably not how knowledge works. At it’s simplest, this can be seen as the wistful claim that it’s not the destination, its the journey. But more profoundly –

Last week, the podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage had a show on artificial intelligence. While discussing the topic guest Alan Winfield made the startling observation: in the early days of AI, we took for granted that a computer would find easy the same tasks that a person finds easy, and that, similarly, a computer would have difficulty with the same tasks a person finds difficult.

Playing chess, for example, takes quite a bit of human skill to do well, so it seemed like an appropriate challenge.

But for a computer, which can quickly store and analyze many possible moves and outcomes – playing chess is relatively easy. On the other hand, recognizing sarcasm in a human-produced sentence is nearly impossible. Indeed, this is one of the challenges of computer science today.

All this is relevant to the concept of learning and matrix-downloads because the groundbreaking area of artificial intelligence is machine learning – algorithms that help a computer learn from initial data to make predictions about future data.

The idea of downloadable knowledge implies that such learning is unnecessary – we only need a massive input of all available data to make sense of it all. But a deeper understanding of knowledge and computing reveals that – not only is such technology unlikely to emerge any time soon, it is not really how computers work, either.

There is something ineffable about learning, about the process of figuring things out and trying again and again and again. To say the process is invaluable is not merely some human platitude, it is a subtle point about the nature of knowledge.

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Honoring Dr. King

Every year, the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated in communities around the country. Officials gather to emphasize the importance of diversity. People participate in service days to help their fellow man. Quotes from the venerable Dr. King can be found everywhere.

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.

It is all very beautiful, meaningful, and inspirational.

There’s just one problem: it’s all just a little too nice. A little too practiced. A little too…superficial.

Particularly among the white community, Martin Luther King Day is too often a day of self-praise and hollow gestures towards justice. As if we can cram all our care into one day and thoughtlessly continue with microaggressions the next. It’s okay cause I celebrated Dr. King. I proved I am not a racist.

 

Too often in the white community we fail to truly grapple with the complex legacy of Dr. King and the dark history of racism in this country. We share inspirational quotes about love and brotherhood, while glibly glossing over King’s valid and harsh critiques of white privilege.

Rather than praise the great man that was, Martin Luther King Day should be an opportunity for critique and introspection. An opportunity to truly ask ourselves, which side are we on?

Consider Dr. King’s brilliant Letter from a Birmingham Jail (I especially recommend listening to the audio version here.)

One of the basic points in your statement is that the action that I and my associates have taken in Birmingham is untimely. Some have asked: “Why didn’t you give the new city administration time to act?”…Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

As King addresses the criticism of his own actions, it’s easy to hear the critiques of today’s activism. It is too untimely. It is too disruptive. Too aggressive.

As we find these same arguments slipping from our mouths, we’d do well to remember this as the popular white response Dr. King received. King goes on:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

To truly honor the legacy of Dr. King, those of us in the white community should reflect on his life not with platitudes about justice, but with a critical eye to our own role in the current struggle for social justice. Despite our good intentions, are we indeed a white moderate, standing on the sidelines of change?

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Discomfort and Civility on College Campuses

There seem to be incongruous concerns growing around many college campuses.

On the one hand, young people are accused of being fragile and coddled, too concerned with creating an artificial, shallow, ‘politically correct’ environment. At the same time, there are increasing calls for civility in response to student complaints.

The dance becoming familiar: something happens, students complain, the university administration calls for civility while the those watching from the outside throw up their hands at the coddled youth of today.

Why can’t they just calm down?

Let’s discuss this civilly.

I call these concerns incongruous because, while sounding like a call for moderation, calling for civility is essentially calling for a maintenance of the status quo. It’s a polite way of saying, you are wrong to be concerned.

Nobody calls for civility when outrage is considered to be well-founded.

As Audre Lourde says in her brilliant 1981 speech The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism: “Mainstream communication wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence, like evening time or the common cold.”

Student protests are a disruption to that fabric. Favoring an absence of controversy, most administrations respond with level-head calls for civility. They hold community dialogues where only those who agree with them show up. The others have already written off the process.

Well-meaning administers say and do all the polite things, baffled by students’ outrage and anger.

Meanwhile, students see inaction and platitudes; calls for civility when any reasonable person would be up in arms. Students are as confounded by administration placidity as administrators are of students’ anger.

As Lourde describes, “I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger.” Our students cannot hide their anger.

Yet, civility and politeness are the prevailing norms in proper society. Perhaps it is only natural to expect proper students to conform to these norms.

There is a study I heard awhile ago – the most homogenous school districts give themselves the highest measures on discussing issues of diversity.

Diversity is easy to discuss when people are mostly the same.

It’s the places where there is true diversity, where people come from a wide variety of backgrounds – it is these places where topics of diversity are most difficult to tackle.

A risk-adverse administrator would be wise to prefer a homogenous community. With, perhaps, a splash of difference to benefit the mainstream and fulfill any principles of diversity.

This is the model that students object to. Students of color aren’t “diversity” intended to educate their white peers. And yet their anger is often dismissed as the sensitive ravings of over-privileged youth.

It is, I think, this aversion to risk, this aversion to discomfort, which is most problematic as we collectively strive towards social justice. Young people are told that they are wrong to demand safe spaces on campus, yet administrators, too, are guilty of seeking the outcome that most suits their needs.

And that just makes students even more angry.

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Horse Races and Political Journalism

The advancement of the calendar year has brought a whole new energy to political campaign coverage. The Iowa Caucus is just over two weeks away, with the New Hampshire primary a week and a half after that.

Political journalism is aflutter with polling data and predictions – Cruz is expected to win the Iowa primary, and the second spot seems locked down as well. But other republicans vying for the nomination have the chance to make waves with a surprise third place finish.

“‘Exceeds expectations’ is the best headline a candidate can hope for coming out of Iowa,” a reporter shared in a recent NPR Political podcast while discussing what he referred to as the “Iowa Tango.”

The dance is not dissimilar on the democratic side – Clinton is expected to win Iowa, but Sanders has been slowly chipping away at her lead. An “exceeds expectations” in Iowa – and certainly a win – could lead to a big bump for the Sanders campaign.

This is all very exciting.

For those of us who are political junkies, presidential horse race coverage can be exhilarating. It’s like a (nerdy) action movie where you never know what’s going to happen next, where you’re on the edge of your seat because there’s no guarantee of a (subjectively) happy ending.

This sort of coverage is engaging for a certain segment of the electorate, but is it good journalism?

In We are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, my former colleague Peter Levine illustrates an alternative model:

An important example was the decision of the Charlotte Observer to dispense with horse race campaign coverage, that is, stories about how the campaigns were trying to win the election. Instead, the Observer convened representative citizens to choose issues for reporters to investigate and to draw questions that the candidates were asked to answer on the pages of the newspaper.

Rather than asking “who will win the election?” this type of political coverage seeks to answer “who should win the election?”

One could argue that this isn’t an appropriate question for a news outlet to ask. If an ostensibly fair and balanced news outlet was actually biased in a particular candidate’s favor, for example, that would indeed go against the democratic process.

Yet we already know that horse race coverage can be prone to bias – resulting in early or inaccurate calls of elections while voting is still taking place.

Similarly, while certainly prone to bias, the question of who should win is not inherently biased. In the example above the Charlotte Observer answered the question not with their own editorial views, but through a combination of citizen voice and candidate response.

This is hardly the only model for political coverage addressing who should win. For example, outlets could put more emphasis on political investigative journalism – scrutinizing candidate policies for likely impact and outcome. There is certainly some of this already, but it is absent from some outlets while others treat such long-form critiques as secondary to the quick news of poll numbers.

Arguably here we have a market issue – perhaps journalists want to provide this sort of thoughtful analysis, but lack the reader interest to pursue it.

Walter Lippmann – a journalist and WWI propagandist – would certainly agree with that assessment. “The Public” as a faceless, unidentified herd, will always be too busy with other things to invest real time and thought into a deep understanding of political issues.

As Lippmann describes in his 1925, The Phantom Public:

For when private man has lived through the romantic age in politics and is no longer moved by the stale echoes of its hot cries, when he is sober and unimpressed…You cannot move him then with good straight talk about service and civic duty, nor by waving a flag in his face, nor by sending a boy scout after him to make him vote.

To the extent that it is popular, horse race coverage succeeds because it is sexy and exciting. There are some people who have the interest and energy to read more provocative thought pieces on politics, but their numbers are not significant enough to affect so-called “public opinion.”

Lippmann does not fault the generic masses for putting their attention towards other things – it is only natural to have more interest and awareness in those topics which effect you more profoundly.

There is an important and subtle distinction here – just because the unnamed masses have no interest in politics does not mean that all people do not have an interest in politics. In one of my favorite Lippmann quotes, he writes that “The public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.

Lippmann does not mean to argue for a technocratic society in which the voices of the common people are excluded. Rather, he highlights an aggregation problem – individual voices are important, while the collective voice of “the Public” – while easiest to hear – is nonsense.

This is, perhaps, what is most attractive about a model such as that used by the Charlotte Observer. Individual voices shaped the process, but on a scale that didn’t aggregate to meaninglessness.

A similar strategy can be seen in work such as that by the Oregon Citizen’s Initiative Review. A the review regularly gathers “a panel of randomly-selected and demographically-balanced voters…from across the state to fairly evaluate a ballot measure.” Each panel hears professional testimony about the measure and participates in several days of dialogue before produce a statement “highlighting the most important findings about the measure” which is then included in the official voter pamphlet.

This type of approach provides a balance between engaging diverse citizen voices and the infeasiblity of having every single person participate in such a process.

The Charlotte Observer provides one example of how this balance might be found in political journalism, but there have been so few attempts it’s impossible to know what’s best. It’s an area that’s desperate for greater innovation, for finding new ways to cover politics and new ways to think about journalist’s and citizen roles in politics.

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