Archive for October, 2010

No on 20, no on 27, no to the myth of electoral reform

October 26, 2010

Every election in California seems to have some well-intentioned proposal to improve government, and this one is no exception.  Prop 20 would extend the powers of the Citizens’ Commission to draw congressional boundaries and eliminate gerrymandering [they already have this power for the state legislatures], while Prop 27 would eliminate the commission entirely.

Ever since the Roman Republic, people have tried to tinker with the democratic process, generally to little effect.  Saturday voting, open primaries, public financing – the list is long and I suspect the good-government types won’t stop until every elected official is a milquetoast blend of Tom Campbell and Evan Bayh.

Do these reforms do any good?  Well, the early California reformers introduced the recall, which gave us Governor Schwarzenegger, and the initiative process, which gave us governmental paralysis.

Let’s take 20 first.  It abolishes Congressional gerrymandering, so we get fewer Democrats, which is bad.  So no.  But gerrymandering’s not fair, you say?  Who the Hell wants to be fair?!  Was Bush v. Gore “fair”?  Was JFK’s 1960 victory “fair”?  Was it fair when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?!  No, no, and no.

Now on to 27.  This abolishes the commission entirely, so the legislature can continue to gerrymander their own state districts.  If there’s one thing more annoying than a goo-goo reformer, it’s a worthless member of a worthless legislature.  Congress occasionally does something, but would we ever miss a few Democrats in the Assembly or Senate?  Would we even miss the whole Assembly or the Senate?  So no on 27 too.  Let’s give this commission a chance to have some fun on the meaningless state bodies – it’s not like anything bad can happen.

So no on 20 and no on 27 (the same position as the League of Women Voters, incidentally).  And no to the pernicious myth of electoral reform.  California has enough real problems – whether you think it’s the public employee unions or Prop 13, let’s get to work on those, rather than getting distracted with repainting the staterooms on the Titanic.


Facebook’s “red ink” – notes on privacy

October 19, 2010

Another Facebook privacy flap?  Why do these keep happening?  Is it that FB is a large and profit-maximizing near-monopoly?  Well sure, but there’s a more subtle reason.  We really don’t know what we mean by privacy.

Here’s a simple example.  Many of my FB friends have let me know their birthday.  On the one hand, there’s no way of stopping me from doing whatever I want with this information, including selling it to companies for a few pennies.  But on the other hand, this information was given to me with some implied trust as to how I would use it, so it’s not really mine to give away deliberately or accidentally.  And on the third hand, do I really need my friend Joe Shlabotnik’s permission to tell United Airlines that I know someone who lives in Providence RI?

My point is not to propose a solution to these issues, but to say that they are complicated, and neither FB nor us has the vocabulary to deal with them.  Now, you could make everything completely public (yikes!), or everything completely private (why be on a social network in the first place?) or give users a confusing array of knobs to turn (cf. Diaspora*) but the situation is reminiscent of this joke from East Germany (quoted in Zizek’s “Desert of the Real”):

A German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: ‘Let’s establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it’s true; if it’s written in red ink, it’s false.’  After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: ‘Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair – the only thing you can’t get is red ink.’

Facebook is notable for the red ink it is missing – a simple way of expressing preferences on privacy and social relationships.  And it would be in its interest to come up with one, so everyone can relax, because wary and suspicious people don’t spend money.

My proposal for Facebook?  Hire a philosopher, an anthropologist, and a lingust, of the same stature as Google’s economist Varian.  Make a big deal of it, and let this scholarly dream team come up with something that will shut the Wall Street Journal up and get everyone back to shopping.  And if you do go this route, feel free to check through my friends list – I think you’ll find some people who would be great for the job.



Zappos and retargeting

October 5, 2010

Recently the online shoeseller Zappos has been criticized for using ad retargeting. What happens is you go to Zappos and put something in your online cart but don’t complete the transaction.  Then you see lots of ads all over the web saying – how about buying those flip-flops you looked at?  It drives some sales, and annoys some people.

I won’t get into the privacy argument or whether the government should intervene.  But this is absolutely the wrong move for Zappos.

Zappos has built its brand on great customer service.  You can return your shoes for any or no reason with free shipping.  When it made an error in its pricing software, it honored the unreasonably low prices, at a cost of $1.6 Million.  Why would it want to make people the least bit worried about shopping?

Zappos might say that most people aren’t concerned, so overall the program is profitable, but that’s missing the point.  Trouble free shopping is a core part of the brand and should not be compromised for any price.  There’s a joke about George Bernard Shaw which illustrates this point (“…now we’re just haggling over price“).  Like virtue, brand value is hard to build up, and easy to tarnish.

What should Zappos do?  Discontinue the ads, ostentatiously fire the agency and its head of marketing.  Maybe send some free shoes to everyone they can find who complained about it online.  Perhaps they could send me a free pair too, or maybe some sunglasses.  Of course, I’m hard to please, so I might end up sending them back.