Saturday, November 9

Victory, of a Sort

After four weeks of freeze-free computing, I'm finally ready to declare victory in my struggle with Apple's OS X 10.2 (Jaguar). It seems that my hunch a few weeks ago was correct, and that the problems that had my computer locking up on a regular basis were traceable to my failure to follow Apple's instructions and update my computer's firmware before installing the new operating system. Since I went back, updated the firmware, and reinstalled the system, there's been not a hint of the problems I had been having previously. Word has crashsed on me a few times, but we all know whose fault that is.

My initial post chronicling my problems with Jaguar drew a record number of hits for this site, thanks to a link from you know who. No doubt only a tiny fraction of that number will see this post, which attributes the problem to user error rather than to anything intrinsically wrong with Jaguar. People love reading about Apple's failures, it seems; they're less enthusiastic about its successes.

But this should hardly be regarded as an unqualified success for Apple in any event. Although my problems were frustrating, they were relatively trivial and easily cured once I figured out what had gone wrong. The same can't be said, though, for all Mac users. People who neglect to update the firmware on some older iMacs, for example, may find their video hardware inoperative after installing Jaguar. They would then have to follow an elaborate and poorly publicized procedure to restore their hardware to working order. Many would probably just conclude that their Macs were irrevocably broken.

One of the subjects I teach is products liability. A basic principle of product liability law is that a manufacturer that supplies warnings and instructions with its product cannot be held liable for defects that the warnings and instructions reveal, even if the individual consumer who suffered damage did not herself read the warnings and instructions. This rule applies even though we know, as a practical matter, that many consumers (myself included, obviously) either do not read the warnings and directions or read but do not heed the warnings and instructions.

There are of course a number of limitations on this broad principle, one of which is the warnings and instructions must be sufficiently conspicuous to come to the consumer's attention and must adequately inform the consumer of the nature and extent of the product's hazards. By this standard, Apple clearly falls short. Although Apple's initial installation instructions told users to upgrade their firmware before installing Jaguar, and although a new Apple Knowledge Base document posted to the web this week informs owners of slot-loading iMacs that they must ugrade their firmware before installing Jaguar, none of these materials spell out the consequences of failure to follow the instructions. As warnings, therefore, the Apple materials are utter failures.

Another exception to the general principle is that, where a particular danger can be avoided by an economically-efficient design change, the manufacturer should implement the design change rather than simply rely on warnings and instructions. Here, too, Apple falls short. Apple's software is clearly able to determine the status of an individual Mac's firmware—we know this because firmware information is available in the Apple System Profiler software that comes with every Mac. It would, you would think, be a simple matter for Apple to write its operating system installer in such a way that it would check for the appropriate firmware before proceeding with the installation, would guide users to upgrade their firmware if necessary, and would prevent installation in the necessary firmware upgrade had not been installed. But the Jaguar installer does no such thing, as I and numerous other users of non-current Macs have discovered to our detriment.

I don't mean to suggest that Mac users who run into trouble installing Jaguar should line up to sue Apple. The software license that accompanies Jaguar contains numerous disclaimers and limitations of liability, and such disclaimers and limitations are usually enforceable in situations where the harm from the product is purely economic. But Apple, which more than most computer manufacturers relies on the home consumer market, needs to be more proactive in taking care of its customers, regardless of its potential legal liability. The instability that I encountered was bad enough; if, by installing a software upgrade, I'd seemingly destroyed my hardware, I'd be inclined to look elsewhere for a new computer. And with its small market share, Apple simply can't afford to alienate customers with its own carelessness.

Friday, November 8

Another Step Toward Reducing Popular Oversight of the Government

Tom Spencer and Kevin Raybould have both noted an editorial from the Los Angeles Times (intrusive registration regrettably required) describing OMB Director Mitch Daniels' plan to shift information management from the Government Printing Office to individual cabinet agencies.

That would spell the end of the current system, in place since the Jeffersonian era, which requires executive branch agencies to send their documents and reports to neutral librarians, who then make them available to the public both online and in 1,300 public reading rooms nationwide.

Daniels would replace that system with a more secretive one in which individual agencies would manage -- and possibly sanitize -- their own electronic databases.

Currently, a federal agency such as the Pentagon can't delete an embarrassing passage from a historical document without first going through the hassle of asking each reading room to obscure the passage with a black marker.

If Daniels gets his way, all an agency will have to do is call up the document in Microsoft Word and quietly hit Control X to delete the passage for eternity.

It should go without saying that this is a thoroughly bad idea. It is, however, very much in keeping with the administration's penchant for secrecy and control.

And lest anyone think that the hypothetical posed by the LA Times editorial is fanciful, it's worth recalling Paul Krugman's column in the New York Times on August 6, 2002. In that column (which is now in the Times' paid archives, but which is available for free elsewhere on the web), Krugman described an instance of the OMB itself revising history by rewriting a press release that appeared on its web site, without in any way acknowledging that the change had occurred:

Last month the Office of Management and Budget got sloppy: it issued a press release stating flatly that tax cuts were responsible for only 15 percent of the 10-year deterioration. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noticed, and I reported it here.

Now for the fun part. The OMB reacted angrily, and published a letter in The Times accusing me of being "abusive." It attributed the misstatement to "error," and declared that it had been "retracted." Was it?

It depends on what you mean by the word "retract." OMB didn't issue a revised statement, conceding that it had misinformed reporters, and giving the right numbers. It simply threw the embarrassing document down the memory hole. As Brendan Nyhan pointed out in Salon, if you go to the OMB's Web site now, you find a press release dated July 12 that is not the release actually handed out on that date. There is no indication that anything has been changed, but the bullet point on sources of the deficit is gone.

The LA Times editorial quotes Patrick Henry as saying: "The liberties of a people never were, nor ever will be, secure when the transactions of their rulers may be concealed from them." From the decision not to make the presidential papers of George H. W. Bush available according to the statutorily-defined timetable, to the refusal to release information about the 2001 Energy Task Force, to the possible removal of the neutral Government Printing Office from the process of making government information public, the Bush administration has made clear that it either does not believe Henry's assertion to be true or does not care whether it is true. And that is not an acceptable position for elected leaders to take in a democratic republic.

Flying the Flag

Greg Greene has some interesting observations on the Democrats' historic defeat in Georgia on Tuesday.

Back to Iraq

With the agreement between the US and France over the wording of a Security Council resolution, and the resolution's passage by a unanimous vote this morning, Iraq is back on the front burner. Many Democrats continue to view the coming confrontation with dismay. But while I had serious problems with the dishonest way the administration presented its case against Iraq, and while I remain uneasy about the administration's leadership in international matters generally, I am reasonably content with where the situation stands now. Something needed to be done about Iraq, which has defied its international obligations with regard to weapons of mass destruction for years—surreptitiously at first, and brazenly since 1998. And, given Saddam Hussein's history, that something clearly was going to require force, or at least the credible threat of force. But we are also involved in an ongoing battle with Al Qaeda, and we need international cooperation and international intelligence in that battle. Proceeding against Iraq with only a narrow international coalition, as some within the administration seemed to desire, threatened to do serious damage to the fight against Al Qaeda.

With the involvement of the Security Council, that danger is now reduced. For some time, I've expressed a hope that we would see the Security Council approve a system of inspections with teeth; that's what we now have. My dismay over Tuesday's election results notwithstanding, I think it's important moving forward to express satisfaction and support for the results achieved by the administration's actions when those results are desirable. The basis for potential action against Iraq is far stronger today than it was a couple of months ago, and that is a good thing.

Of course, my satisfaction with this result is appropriately grim. As David Ignatius writes in the Washington Post this morning, Saddam Hussein now finds himself backed into a corner, and there are signs emerging from Iraq that the internal endgame has begun. And while we don't know Hussein's plans, that endgame is likely to be bloody, and may well involve Israeli and American casualties as well as the deaths of innocent Iraqis.

The prospect of violence and death is sobering, to say the least. War is never a desirable option. But sometimes it is necessary as a last resort. Today's UN action is a significant step toward making sure that it remains a last resort, not a first option.

Thursday, November 7

Bridge to a 527-Vote Victory?

Right-leaning South Dakota native Andrew Clem believes he's identified the key to Tim Johnson's narrow win over John Thune (no permalinks—scroll to the third post for November 6). It's been widely noted that one of Johnson's principal arguments in favor of his candidacy was that his election would help Tom Daschle retain his position as Senate majority leader, thus ensuring that South Dakota would continue to receive more than its share of federal dollars. Andrew believes that one particular pork-barrel project, a popular if little-used bridge across the Missouri River at the college town of Vermillion (Johnson's hometown), may have provided Johnson with his razor-thin margin of victory.

More broadly, Andrew bemoans the effects of politically-motivated congressional redistricting. This, it seems to me, is something that sensible people on both sides of the aisle can agree on. Ideally, redistricting would be done behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance, so that the parties would be unable to play the partisan-advantage and incumbent-protection games that currently dominate the process. But I don't see how we get from here to there.

Things to Come

Among those commenting on my post-election rant yesterday was Rob Lyman, who, viewing my post from a right-leaning perspective, had two essential points that deserve comment. First, while saying I was correct that the Democrats' message during the fall campaign was largely content-free, he was critical of left-leaning bloggers generally for failing to suggest positive program alternatives. I don't think that's necessarily a fair reading of the left-leaning portion of the blogosphere, but even if it is, my response is: just wait, it's coming.

In a cordial exchange of emails, Rob also wondered whether I was placing too much emphasis on the party—what matters, he suggested, is whether good ideas are implemented, not which party presents those ideas. In the abstract, I agree. Some allegiances are set for life, come hell or high water—I've been a fan of the New York Mets since I was six; my support for the team survived the Jeff Torborg-Dallas Green years and remains unwavering. But government is not sport, and I'm not necessarily a Democrat for life.

On the other hand, let's be realistic. The current Republican party holds virtually no attraction for me. Its ideas are not my ideas, and, given the dominance of southern conservatives within the party's power structure, that is not going to change for the foreseeable future. And at the moment, no viable third-party alternative exists—I may be to the left of the current Republican party, but I'm not a Green. So, to the extent that I have policy preferences that I would like to see implemented, the Democratic party represents my best hope—that is, assuming that the party changes its messengers, changes its tone, and figures out that it needs to stand for something.

Wednesday, November 6

Hey, Wasn't I Supposed to Be a Liberal?

(Link to the quiz provided by Ann Salisbury).

86th Update

The reports earlier in the day of a large trove of miscounted ballots in the race for the 86th Indiana House District proved false. Nevertheless, a retally of yesterday's votes (not a complete recount, but a retally of individual precinct reports) produced a dramatic change: Democratic challenger David Orentlicher went from 28 votes down to 37 votes ahead of Republican incumbent Jim Atterholt. Atterholt is almost certain to ask for a recount.

Even though the stakes are lower than in the national races decided yesterday, and certainly lower than the extended 2000 presidential battle, this contest has been eating at me all day. It's different when a friend is involved. I won't pretend that it's affecting me even remotely as much as it's affecting David. But after watching him work so hard for well over a year (and after contributing my own minor efforts on his behalf), I desperately want him to win.

Cliffhanger

On the local front, the race in the 86th Indiana House District between Dan Burton protégé Jim Atterholt and IU-Indianapolis law professor David Orentlicher (my friend and colleague) remains unresolved. On the initial count, Atterholt appeared to prevail by 28 votes; this morning, however, unconfirmed reports of substantial counting errors have surfaced. At this point, no one seems to know what's going on, and a challenge is expected regardless of who is declared the winner. The stakes are particularly high because the outcome of this race will determine which party controls the Indiana House of Representatives.

The race should not have been this close, and I have some thoughts on why it turned out to be this close. But I will hold those thoughts for now, pending more information about the vote tallies.

The Day After

There's really only one word for what I feel this morning: rage. Hot, nearly incoherent rage. And the target of the rage is the Democratic leadership: DNC Chair Terry McAuliffe, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and the rest of the crew that led the Democrats to yesterday's historic and catastrophic collapse. We have a weak economy and a weak stock market, consumer confidence has plunged, budget deficits have returned in a big way, the administration has done everything it possibly could to undermine the reform of accounting and corporate governance, we are well on our way to an entrenched plutocracy, and the voters responded by rejecting the party that held only one-half of one of the branches of government. Such an unprecedented result can only be attributed to a failure of leadership of massive proportions.

The conventional wisdom is already taking shape this morning: the Democrats ran a campaign of tactics, not solutions; they had no positive message for the voters, trying instead to motivate the electorate with fear of what an unchecked Republican-controlled government would do. That fear, to my mind, is well-founded. But fear alone is rarely enough to sway voters, and the Democrats offered virtually nothing in the way of positive policy alternatives. There is more to being an opposition party than opposition, and the Democrats were unable to offer anything more. And sometimes they weren't even able to be clear about what they were against.

The president and the Republicans now have their chance. They are certainly more able to claim a mandate than they were two years ago. As for the Democrats, it should be clear now that they are doomed to failure unless and until they are able to put together a platform of ideas, a Democratic analogue to the 1994 Republican Contract With America, around which to rally. Such a move carries risks, to be sure—it provides the opposition with a target for criticism. But we've now seen what risk-aversion produces, and the party can't afford any more results like yesterday. It's time for the party leadership to figure out what it stands for, not just what it stands against, and to put up or shut up.

Update: Along the lines of the above, Kevin Raybould writes that "we have not yet begun to fight"—a description, not a rallying cry—and hopes that yesterday's results will signal the demise of the DLC.

Tuesday, November 5

Quick Thoughts

A quick note between the closing of the polls at six and the start of election night festivities: despite a cold, wet, thoroughly miserable day, turnout in the Indianapolis area seems to have been quite high today. Indeed, in my new hometown of Zionsville, just to the northwest of Indianapolis, the precinct where I worked this morning was headed toward a fifty percent turnout despite the fact that the only even remotely competitive races on the ballot were for a couple of minor statewide offices. In Indianapolis proper, voters crowded the polling places in the morning, in part to beat the rain, but kept up a steady stream throughout the day, with the only real lull coming in the mid-afternoon.

Julia Carson's re-election campaign in the Seventh couldn't come to an end without one more twist: when Carson went to vote this morning, the lever by her name in the voting machine she used was broken and could not be voted; Carson thus was initially unable to vote for herself.

Early numbers are trickling in, but without knowing which precincts are reporting it's virtually impossible to discern anything useful at this point. Because I've been working the polls all day, I haven't heard any scuttlebutt other than that turnout is high. It looks to be an interesting evening.

Election Day

Having voted yesterday, I'll be heading out shortly to help set up a local polling place for its six o'clock opening. Polls in Indiana close at six this evening; until then, I'll be playing a small role in the day's grand, if imperfect, exercise in democracy.

Vote. As Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft wrote when she recently guest-blogged for Eric Alterman, if you don't vote, you can't complain. And then what would we all have to talk about?

Monday, November 4

Indiana House Races

I voted this morning. I'll be working the polls all day tomorrow, and because I didn't register for an absentee ballot in time, I went to the Boone County Courthouse in Lebanon, Indiana, to fill out my ballot. Once there, I learned to my amazement and embarrassment that, contrary to what I had thought, Rep. Steve Buyer is not in fact running unopposed in Indiana's oddly-shaped Fourth District. Not only is there a Libertarian candidate, but there is a Democrat as well: Bill Abbott, a General Electric employee and union official. Given the composition of the district and the vast differences in resources available to the candidates, however, Mr. Abbott has no chance whatsoever of defeating Buyer.

While the Fourth is a safe Republican seat, there are three races in Indiana that bear watching tomorrow. The Seventh, in which Rep. Julia Carson is facing Republican challenger Brose McVey, has been thrown into further disarray by sheriff candidate Tom Schneider's use of an unflattering, grainy, ghoulish-looking photo of Carson in a piece of campaign literature seeking to tie Carson to Schneider's opponent, Frank Anderson. The photo has drawn substantial attention in the Indianapolis media and has caused dismay within the McVey camp, which understandably feels that its own campaign against Carson has been hijacked. While the steady stream of attacks against Carson has angered and energized her base, the bad weather expected for tomorrow may well limit the effectiveness of Carson's GOTV effort. I expect that this one will be close.

The Eighth, where incumbent John Hostettler faces challenger Brian Hartke, was not expected to be close. But Hartke appears to have gained substantial momentum in the closing days of the campaign, to the point that southwestern Indiana Democrats are claiming that their candidate is in the lead. While it's easy to discount such statements, there's no question that Hostettler has done substantial damage to his own cause by mishandling a flap over his meeting with a group of breast cancer survivors, by severing contact with most of the media within the district, and by failing to show up for a scheduled radio debate with Hartke. Hostettler was also one of six House Republicans to vote against the Iraq use-of-force resolution, a politically risky move that threatens to diminish enthusiasm for his candidacy among his base. Hartke was initially short of the cash needed to take advantage of the opening Hostettler created, but in the closing days of the campaign the national party has stepped in, giving Hartke the media presence he needed. His campaign's claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Hartke remains something of a longshot, but this could be one of the big surprises of the night tomorrow.

The other big congressional race in Indiana is in the Second, an old-fashioned slugfest between former Congresswoman Jill Long Thompson and Republican businessman Chris Chocola. This is clearly one of the battleground districts in the country, considered important enough to draw an appearance from the president himself. Although the Second District penetrates the northern fringes of the Indianapolis media market—and I've thus been subjected to a dizzying array of ads, positive and negative, for both candidates—I have very little feel for this race, other than the accumulated disgust generated by the campaign commercials. But clearly people on both sides think it will be close.

Given the limited number of competitive races nationwide, it's striking that Indiana seems to have at least three. Indiana's polls close at 6 p.m., so watch for early returns. As Indiana goes, so goes the nation?

Positives and Negatives

Andrew Cline's Rhetorica reprints a cartoon by Jack Ohman that captures in nine panels almost all of what it took me seven paragraphs to say in my post about political advertising last week.

You know things are bad when you find yourself looking forward to the return of the usual commercial dose of fast food and prescription drugs.

The Void

Your week's up, Ted. Time to come back. (Please?)

Sunday, November 3

Uniform Obsessions

When I was growing up, my normal, healthy obsession with sports (especially baseball and football) branched out into a somewhat unusual obsession with uniform designs. Although my mother was convinced that I was wasting my time, I actually managed to parlay my hard-earned childhood knowledge into a part-time job during law school with Mitchell & Ness, the outfit licensed by Major League Baseball to produce exact replicas of vintage baseball jerseys. For several years, I was one of the company's researchers, digging through fading and crumbling newspapers and periodicals for precise details of various old-style uniforms. I also wrote most of the text for the company's first retail catalog—a real challenge, given that, at the time, the license from Major League Baseball prohibited mentioning players by name.

Given my past interests, I was delighted to discover (by way of sportsblogger extraordinaire Eric McErlain) the Helmet Project, a remarkable compendium of professional and collegiate helmet designs from 1960 forward. Such a project would be elaborate enough if it included only the NFL and Division I college teams, but site proprietor Charles Arey also the lower divisions of college football and defunct professional leagues like the WFL, the USFL, and the XFL. There are a few holes (and Arey is looking for help filling them), and a few errors, but it's an amazing piece of work, and great fun to browse through.

No Wine of the Week

Wine of the Week is on brief hiatus. I'm still under the weather, and although I have some notes I could write up, I don't even feel like thinking about wine, let alone drinking it. Wineblogging will resume once I've kicked this cold.

The Indiana 86th

Bill Keller's column in the Times yesterday began on an awkward note, recalling a glorious (and probably mythical) past when Congress was filled with individuals who "took lawmaking almost as seriously as winning elections," whose "strong views were tempered in the interest of solving problems." No doubt the rain never fell 'til after sundown, and winter exited March the second on the dot, too.* Nevertheless, he's right that the atmosphere in Washington has been particularly poisonous for the last decade or so, and there's no doubt that the nation would be better governed if those he deems "America's Most Wanting" were turned out of office.

The likelihood of that happening, unfortunately, is next to nil, as most of the individuals he identifies are in safe seats. As evidence, we need look no further than one of those on Keller's list: Dan Burton, a national embarrassment who gave a lover a phantom job on his staff, who fathered a child out of wedlock, who seems to have raised campaign money illegally from his congressional offices, and who famously fired bullets into a "headlike thing" in his backyard in an effort to prove that Clinton advisor Vince Foster was murdered. In a sensible world, Dan Burton would have been voted out long ago. But this is not a sensible world, and Burton has been protected with overwhelmingly Republican districts throughout his career. Even though many Republicans are as appalled as Democrats are by Burton's antics, he will win re-election on Tuesday by a wide margin.

As proof that Burton is considered an embarrassment, consider the campaign materials of Jim Atterholt, a member of the Indiana House of Representatives. Attherholt is Burton's district director in Indiana; he has been a member of Burton's congressional staff, either in Indiana or in Washington, since graduating from college. And Atterholt's written campaign materials trumpet his experience as a congressional aide. But they rather pointedly omit the name of his employer and mentor—this despite the fact that Atterholt directly owes his house seat to Burton. Indeed, in candidate forums, Atterholt visibly flinches when Burton's name is mentioned.

Atterholt, in short, is a career politician—one with virtually no experience outside the government, and one beholden to the kind of fellow who gives career politicians a bad name. What's interesting, in this year's election, is that Atterholt's opponent, David Orentlicher, is the opposite, a genuine political outsider with real experience in areas—health care, education—as to which the legislature faces important decisions.

Now, there's no question on where I stand in this campaign. David Orentlicher is a friend as well as a faculty colleague. And even if that were not the case, Orentlicher's politics are far more to my liking than Atterholt's. Even in a conservative state, Atterholt stands on the right edge of the Republican party; there's hardly a tax he doesn't want to cut or spending he doesn't want to slash. Orentlicher, by contrast, is a moderate Democrat with balanced ideas for reformulating the Indiana tax system (made necessary by court-ordered restructiuring of the state's property tax) and improving public education.

More interesting to me, though, is the battle between a lifelong political insider and a highly qualified political outsider. It's not uncommon these days for commentators to bemoan the lack of interesting and qualified candidates for political office, The problem is particularly acute in the state legislatures, where the general lack of publicity and adequate remuneration rarely draws more than mediocrities beholden to the local political powers that be. In this regard, David Orentlicher is a striking exception. And while it's common (and frequently justified) to criticize academics as out of touch with reality, Orentlicher has the real-world experience in medicine to balance his more theoretical academic writings. The legislature need not consist entirely of David Orentlichers. But surely there is room for one.

Jim Atterholt is an affable, pleasant man; he seems to have none of his mentor's outlandish personal foibles. There's no question, though, that as a politician he remains more of the same—his long-term and continuing employment with Dan Burton surely reveals something about his character. The Indiana legislature does not need more figures like Jim Atterholt. It could, however, use someone with the experience and expertise of David Orentlicher. Although Atterholt has an edge in fundraising, it is not nearly as great as might be expected, and thanks to redistricting Atterholt finds himself in a district with only a slender Republican advantage. If Atterholt is re-elected, it will say something truly discouraging about the state of politics today.

* Paraphrased from Lerner & Loewe's "Camelot."