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June 23, 2008

So close
Posted by Avram Grumer at 09:50 PM * 86 comments

McCain aide Mark Soohoo, when asked to defend McCain for being computer-illiterate:

“You don’t actually have to use a computer to understand how it shapes the country, […] John McCain is aware of the Internet,” says Soohoo. “This is a man who has a very long history of understanding on a range of issues.”

Maybe this is a deliberate strategy. Maybe the next few months will see McCain and his aides talking about having cheeseburgers and terrorists setting up bombs, eventually causing politically-aware Net users (who are disproportionately Obama supporters) to collapse of nervous exhaustion just before Election Day.

Comments on So close:
#1 ::: Nora ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:19 PM:

I wouldn't mind him and all the other computer-illiterate Washingtonians so much if they didn't keep trying to pass laws about this thing they don't understand and can't be bothered to use.

#2 ::: Syd ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:33 PM:

Such a shame, though, that he isn't aware of all Internet traditions...and that he apparently has no understanding of it whatsoever. (Am waiting for his camp to make a comparison of the Internet to a bunch of tubes.)

And it isn't an age thing, as I know at least two people his age or older who are quite savvy in this regard, and if they can be bothered to figure it out...well, okay, not a large statistical universe, but still, if one is interested in learning about something, one usually can make at least a little headway if one, oh, I dunno, tries, maybe?

And what Nora said.

#3 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:43 PM:

If they only legislated things they understood they wouldn't have anything to do at all!

#4 ::: Charles Miller ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:47 PM:

To me, the issue runs deeper than "you have to understand the Internet to make laws about it". Being computer illiterate in today's world means that you are not responsible for managing your own correspondence, and do not do any of your own research. Also, it means that your work for at least the last fifteen years has consisted entirely of either manual labour at someone else's behest, or of telling people what to do.

You can only get away with it if you have teams of people to do stuff for you: prepare your documents, write your letters, do your research, deliver news to your desk and filter your interaction with the outside world, and if you do not get your hands dirty by joining in with that work. Which is fine if (a) you can afford it, and (b) you're happy being infantilized to that degree.

Personally, being computer illiterate in a world of ubiquitous computing would drive me absolutely mental.

#5 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:55 PM:

The President takes this to extremes -- he can't even read.

#6 ::: Brenda ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 10:57 PM:

John McCain is aware of all Internet traditions.

#7 ::: KB ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:03 PM:

Oh, for pity's sake, Mr. McCain! My aunt is 90 and loves her computer. She's got a webcam fixed up so she can chat with family members on Skype.

So he's "aware of the Internet." Well, that's just peachy. I'm "aware" of foreign policy, even if I don't really understand it. Can I run for president, too?

#8 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:15 PM:

KB, you'd definitely have my vote if you were running against McCain.

#9 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:28 PM:

The sad thing is, if you tried to explain why this is a problem to McCain supporters, they'd act like you were some kind of...some kind of GEEK!

In a way, I think the internet is so ubiquitous, that computing is such a fundamental part of life, people kind of take it for granted. In a way, I think they've (we've?) actually forgotten how vital it is to modern life, so facts like what Charles Miller points out don't even occur to people. People hear "he doesn't use the internet" and think "oh, he doesn't watch Youtube or play WOW." They don't think "he's out of touch with vast sources of vital info like LexusNexus, he doesn't have access to borderless information and he's failing to use an excellent medium for immediate contact with the vast majority of his constituents."

Hopefully, this is the last generation of policymakers that will claim ignorance of the intarnets.

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:41 PM:

McCain is less competent than my mother, who got her first computer when Ronny was president (1987). My father had one, too: they were in the same age group as the Kennedys. (Yes, a two-computer household.)

#11 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:44 PM:

Does anyone here think Obama, or Hillary Clinton, personally do research on the Internet? I suspect most of their computer use consists of swapping email with their staff (and friends and families), and maybe doing some writing and looking at Excel spreadsheets (that have been prepared for them by someone else). Most of the work-related stuff the rest of us use computers for is stuff that senators, governors, presidents, and presidential candidates have staff to do for them.

#12 ::: Ronit ::: (view all by) ::: June 23, 2008, 11:46 PM:

What Charles Miller said and then some.

John McCain would like us to let him run the massive federal bureaucracy, a vastly complex series of institutions which have been more than a little 'shaped' by computers and the internet. How does not using computers and being merely 'aware of the internet' qualify him for the job?

Separately, John McCain claims to be an expert on the military and national security, and these days the armed forces and the intelligence agencies rely heavily on computers, not abacuses. Why hasn't he taken the time in the past few decades to become computer literate and achieve a deep understanding of what the armed services and intelligence agencies are doing?

#13 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:21 AM:

Well, Obama knows that you shouldn't use an O(N^2) algorithm if you're trying to sort a million 32-bit integers. That puts him ahead of McCain in my book.

#14 ::: Greg Carere ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:27 AM:

I bet it's all a part of a new campaign strategy. He's trying to get a lock on the human vote, y'see. I can picture the slogans now:

John McCain... is aware of the internet!

John McCain... has seen a movie!

John McCain... requires oxygen to live!

#15 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:53 AM:

It's a good point, Avram. The Internet does give us some sort of equivalent of the staff that politicians rely on.

But their personal use of computers sits in the world of the pre-Internet office.

If they're not looking at the funny YouTube video that a staffer's circulated a link to; if they're not doing anything personal more than emails to family; if they don't do any of the ordinary, human, slightly embarrassing, things such as looking at freebie porn or (the other extreme) looking at model railroad sites; if there's no interaction with a wider world than their office and family; they're not using the Internet.

#16 ::: Adrian ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 04:53 AM:

People mean different kinds of things when they say "I don't understand computers" or "I'm not good with computers." In my line of work, I run into a disturbing number of people who look like they work with computers all day, using specific programs somebody else wrote and installed. Not just email or word processing, sometimes fairly specialized number-crunching or process-control software, but the users can only do the things they know (which they think of in terms much more specific than "using the computer." Maybe "sending email," or "searching the company database." (People who say this sort of thing aren't necessarily older than I am.)

A lot of people can't repair their cars. They're afraid to even open the hood and try, because they know cars are incredibly complicated and easy for a clumsy person to damage. Car repair is a useful skill, but not having it doesn't mean you can't drive.

#17 ::: chris y ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 05:46 AM:

John McCain is aware of the Internet

But is he aware of all internet traditions?

I think JimR @9 has it about right. This isn't about people who can drive but can't fix their cars. This is about people who don't understand why highway maintenance is important to transport policy.

#18 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 06:12 AM:

#12: I'm "aware" of foreign policy, even if I don't really understand it.

McCain's ahead of you -- he's made this claim too.

#19 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:13 AM:

Adrian at 16: Most skill sets are hard to generalize that way, though. It's a pretty big conceptual leap from "This tool will let me perform task X" to "This is a complicated programmable workbench that will let me do many different things and communicate with people all over the world while being entertained by humorous cat pictures".

I think it's the same divide between the people who talk to librarians and the people who just borrow fiction.

Being able to talk about 'using computers' or 'using the internet' is a bit less meaningful than it was. I really look forward to the day when it's completely meaningless, because I want that sort of transparent ubiquitous interface.

#20 ::: JimR ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:19 AM:

Hey, what's there for McCain to understand about foreign policy?
Plane go up, bomb go down.
AKA the Us v. Them doctrine.

It's worked for Bush, hannit?

#21 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:24 AM:

can the man at least use a cellphone without help?

#22 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:36 AM:

People mean different kinds of things when they say "I don't understand computers" or "I'm not good with computers."

Do they ever.

Saturday evening I was at a bookstore and there was a woman in the corner who was typing on a laptop. Half an hour or so after I sat down, she asked the world at large if anyone "knew about computers". Turned out, what she wanted was reassurance that she'd managed to save a file so she could turn the machine off and leave. She'd hit the button five or six times, but since nothing had popped up to tell her the file was saved...

#23 ::: Seth Gordon ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:36 AM:

I am reminded of Toyota v. Williams, where the Supreme Court unanimously decided that a woman with repetitive strain injury was not "disabled" within the meaning of the ADA. Of course, Supreme Court Justices don't really need to use their hands for anything...they can always ask a clerk to type things out for them.

#24 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:44 AM:

Well, I'd say that the defense is impossible. If McCain was aware of how computers are shaping the world, he'd know that it's in his (and everybody's) interests to get involved with them as soon as possible.

We're not talking about somebody under The Digital Divide. We're talking about somebody who has never decided to learn how to use a computer. And who claims to be aware of their power.

Well, okay, it's possible that it's true, but that McCain can't make the connection between the power of computers (he claims to be aware of) and... you know... humans. Wait, no... it still doesn't make sense. He would need to prefer ignorance or weakness to actually be aware of their power and influence and not take the time to learn to use one.

#25 ::: Paul ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:51 AM:

Personally, being computer illiterate in a world of ubiquitous computing would drive me absolutely mental.

There was an Asimov story where what we would call a computer hacker was sentenced to being unable to use a computer. (I've forgotten the name of the story).

We're approaching the day where such a punishment would be more than inconvenient, it would really be a problem.

#26 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 08:59 AM:

This is about people who don't understand why highway maintenance is important to transport policy.

"Not transport policy, *budget* policy." said the Pennsylvanian.

For years, truckers would criticize PA for having the worst highways in the nation. And as a child, I couldn't understand why. Eventually I learned that the Turnpike is entirely within a rapid freeze/thaw zone (along with a *lot* of other highways in the state). Building these roads to a specification that would minimize freeze/thaw damage is ferociously expensive. Maintaining the lower quality roads... also ferociously expensive, tho a tiny bit less. And it is very near to impossible to add new roadways and keep them at a reasonable specification for grade without a lot of dynamite. Blasting is expensive. Don't ask why there was such a need for new roads... cause the logic was shaky at best. (yes, we must have a new road to... the amusement park! and Wal-mart!)

Every choice the State Legislature could make was expensive. Even the most minimal maintenance would threaten to overwhelm the budget some years. For years, PENNdot opposed allowing tractor trailer "trains" and raising the speed limit... because both laws were a cheap way of cutting maintenance costs. For years, both the Teamsters and trucking companies fought those laws... because *they* didn't have to pay much in the way of highway taxes, and the laws were "inconvenient". For them.

(I'm told there were also some epic problems with corruption in highway construction before I was born... so certain highways were built to a spec that wasn't appropriate for Texas, nevermind the rapid freeze/thaw zone they were in. That would have added even more to the maintenance budget.)

Doesn't matter what kind of transportation policy you want in a situation like that. You end up going with what you can afford to maintain. And it's easy for a government to get caught up in a treadmill of only thinking about maintenance, never about the whys and hows.

#27 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:12 AM:

#11 ::: Avram:

Does anyone here think Obama, or Hillary Clinton, personally do research on the Internet?

Just a guess, but it wouldn't surprise me if they do quick checks on anomalies in what they're reading, and ask staffers to check into any larger questions.

#28 ::: Tlönista ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:34 AM:

Carrie, #22:

a) To be fair, that's a flaw in Windows; in OS X, when you have an unsaved document open there's a dot on the close button, so you're reminded.

b) That's still not as bad as my mother, who used to panic whenever she accidentally minimized a window, thinking the file had been summarily deleted. I think she's better now.

In school, we were taught touch-typing, HTML, and Internet basics as 10-year-olds (this was just before Google and CSS arrived, and marquee tags were a daring stylistic choice). Nowadays, according to a former roommate who's a teaching assistant, they learn basic site design at 8. And maybe most people are still "drivers" and not "mechanics", but people who don't even use computers are about as common as people who have never gotten a driver's licence.

#29 ::: Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:36 AM:

I think it's entirely likely that Obama has experience from his pre-Senate days with the net. Clinton, maybe, maybe not, since she's been at a higher level of power longer.

#30 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:52 AM:

#28, Tlönista -

re: a. -

No way. Really? *struggles to find close button because I never use it. Spots dot* Hey, you're right!

I've been using OSX for three years now, and I never noticed the dot.

#31 ::: G. Jules ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:00 AM:

Do we know if Cindy McCain is also "aware of the internet"? If not, it might explain the bizarre choice of recipes plagiarized for the campaign website. (Never thought I'd see a Republican run recipes for Ahi tuna and Napa cabbage slaw. That's wine-drinking, cheese-huffing, France-loving liberal food, that is!)

#28: Nowadays, according to a former roommate who's a teaching assistant, they learn basic site design at 8.

Whereas I learned BASIC at 8. I feel old.

#30: I've been using OSX for three years now, and I never noticed the dot.

I've been using OSX for a year and a half now, and while I'd noticed the dot, I had no idea what it portended....

#32 ::: Scott H ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:28 AM:

I'm actually more worried about the public policy implications of natural language processing. Historically the degree to which privacy can be invaded has always been implicitly constrainted by technical limitations. You always had to have a human listening in on the other end of the bug. I don't think that's a safe bet anymore.

These days it's relatively convenient to turn spoken words into ASCII. Warrantless wiretapping doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. I personally think that natural language comprehension--some degree thereof, anyway--really is inevitable, probably sooner rather than later. What happens when it's technically possible to mechanically monitor every conversation everywhere always?

I'd argue that decisions on surveillance policy made by the next few governments are going to have some very far reaching implications. I've got my doubts that someone who doesn't know how to use email will be able to grasp all the ramifications.

#33 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:37 AM:

McCain's angry because he knows someone's being wrong on the internet.

#34 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:46 AM:

Sam Kelly (19): Not to disagree with your wider point, but a lot of people talk to librarians about what fiction to borrow.

#35 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:55 AM:

McCain is copying the current Resident? who doesn't believe in doing any research himself and relies on his apparatchik bureaucracy to insure that the only "information" flowing around is what he wants distributed and what he appreciates being fed.

Doing research oneself there is that possibility that one might come across, by happenstance or by any credible research skills and with a mind that is not arcwelded shut as regards allowable input, "adverse information" or material otherwise which one can't arrange to be overlooked/ignored/discredited that doens't agree with one's personal views and opinions and desires and initiatives.

Translation, "I'm WILLFULLY virtually blind to anything I don't feel like seeing and am PROUD of that!"

#36 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 10:59 AM:

Windows Office programs do actually have something like that dot. It's not as obvious, though. When there are no changes to be saved (because you've only just saved the file a moment ago) the "Save" command in the File menu will be grayed out.

Last night, the household watched Doctor Who S4Ep11 (I promise these are not spoilers!) and the accompanying Doctor Who Confidential. In the latter, we learned that Catherine Tate does not drive, and therefore they needed a double for those driving scenes shot from outside the car (those that couldn't be faked by having the car slowly towed down the street). All of us sat up and stared at each other and said, "She doesn't drive?" We speculated briefly about whether this was 'cause she was a Successful Actor who can afford to hire chauffers all the time so she doesn't have to bother. Then Tate herself was on camera talking about how she thinks everyone who has successfully learned how to drive should be proud of themselves for the accomplishment; she thinks it's terribly difficult and it intimidates her. (Paraphrasing, of course.) So she really doesn't know how, and this totally floored us.

But, y'know, I can cut people much more slack for being unable/unwilling to learn how to drive than for being unwilling to learn some computer and internet basics. At least with a car, you have the reasonable argument that you don't want to be responsible for a ton or two of fast-moving, potentially lethal machinery.

(Yes, computers can be potentially lethal, too. Don't put clueless people in charge of rocket silo command centers, don't give malicious people anonymous MySpace accounts, and don't give me a C++ compiler if you don't want your RAM to get hosed. Depends on the program you run, though, doesn't it?)

#37 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:01 AM:


Was wondering why I had never heard of "I am aware of all internet traditions." Followed the link again. Realized the ill-thought troll comment was made last week. Felt better about myself forthwith.

#38 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:11 AM:

Nicole @ 36

Actually, they put the car on a trailer with the lights and cameras (the generator is on the truck towing it). Just one of the things you see when working in downtown LA. It's really funny when the actor is on a motorcycle: there's no trailer; they have a special towbar set up, so the actor doesn't have to do anything but sit there, with all the stuff going on around him (including overhead). And in both cases, ther's a police escort to keep the natives from disrupting the Very Important Work being done.

#39 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:36 AM:

Supposedly Eisenhower was surprised after he left office, picked up a telephone, and heard the dial tone. All his career, every time he picked up the phone, an operator would connect him, or the party would be on the line.

McCain's lack of knowledge of computers doesn't bother me, but the volatile old guy with a temper disturbs me.

#40 ::: Neil Willcox ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:44 AM:

Can we use Avram's theory to predict McCain's policies?

Q: Senator McCain, who will have jurisdiction over the 58 bases in Iraq?
A: All the bases will belong to the U.S.

Does anyone here think Obama, or Hillary Clinton, personally do research on the Internet?

It's conceivable that Obama working in a University up until 1996 didn't use the internet for research, and hasn't caught up on the changes since then. I must admit I have no idea what the staff of a state senator is like, so he may not have done any research himself since then. (I'm not an American, and my attempts to google state senator's staffs keep ending up with US senator's staff and the staff of various states senates)

#41 ::: ethan ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:49 AM:

Dave Bell #15: freebie porn or (the other extreme)...model railroad sites

I seem to remember...where is it...ah yes.

Are you sure about that?

#42 ::: don delny ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:50 AM:

oh, sorry. I crossposted this last time:

Matthew Yglesias is aware of all internet traditions.

I can haz a do over?

#43 ::: Sam Kelly ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:20 PM:

Mary Aileen at 34: Good point, and re-reading what I wrote I ought to stress that I'm not disparaging fiction-readers - maybe I should have said 'people who head straight for Danielle Steel and then straight for the checkout desk'.

I don't drive (partly because I have concentration and focus issues, partly because I never learnt and it wouldn't be worth it to me to do so now, living in London) but I can change a wheel, and if I say so myself I'm a rather good navigator. I got taught to read maps at an early age, and learnt to be good at it in self-defense - since that way I got to sit in the front and was a lot less likely to be travel-sick.

Mind you, if McCain has his way nobody will need to do that again - his test project will be in the Former Soviet Union, where roads navigate you.

#44 ::: turtle ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:22 PM:

Nicole @ 36:

Maybe she never learned to drive for the same reason as me-- she's lived in cities with good public transportation systems all her life.

(Though if she hasn't, then yes, you're right, that is exceedingly weird.)

#45 ::: TChem ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:32 PM:

#36: I know quite a few non-drivers (none Famous Actors With Chauffeurs), but I think it's something you discover more often when you're a non-driver. We look just like everyone else, I swear.

I am, however, aware of all automotive traditions.

#46 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:37 PM:

I don't drive. And I grew up in Michigan. I rode my bicycle a lot. (Why yes, I do have well-developed legs, thank you.)

#47 ::: Eric K ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 12:55 PM:

I suspect that Obama does do research online, based on an hour and a half he spent talking with Marc Andreessen:

[Obama and I] were able to have an actual, honest-to-God conversation, back and forth, on a number of topics. In particular, the Senator was personally interested in the rise of social networking, Facebook, Youtube, and user-generated content, and casually but persistently grilled us on what we thought the next generation of social media would be and how social networking might affect politics -- with no staff present, no prepared materials, no notes. He already knew a fair amount about the topic but was very curious to actually learn more.

So Obama is actually able to have an interesting Internet-related conversation with Marc Andreessen. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that he reads a lot, either--Obama seems to be fairly well-informed on a wide range of issues, and you can't achieve that just by listening to staffers.

#48 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 01:32 PM:

Paula @35, there is this consideration too:

"The door of a bigoted mind opens outwards so that the only result of the pressure of facts upon it is to close it more snugly." — Ogden Nash, Seeing Eye to Eye Is Believing

#49 ::: EClaire ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 01:37 PM:

And also, re: Catherine Tate, it's much more difficult to get a drivers license in the UK than it is in the US. I've been driving here for 13 years, and I'm pretty sure I could not pass the test in the UK. I do not think I could do a three point turn without hitting a curb (kerb), I just learned to downshift and engine brake last month, and I don't check my mirrors nearly often enough.

To bring this back to computers - my mom, who was a fantastic typist and did online genealogical research and all sorts of other things on the computer, never realized that you could cut and paste things from one window to another. Whenever she wanted to copy something, regardless of how long it was, she would retype the entire document.

Sadly, my computer class in high school - in 1996 - was BASIC. Yes, our textbook was actually published in 1986. And this was supposed to be an upgrade from just teaching us typing.

#50 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 01:47 PM:

49: it's certainly not uncommon to find non-drivers in the UK, especially in the cities. I live in London and, while I can drive, I never do. (What, never?) Well... hardly ever. I do, however, use bad language or abuse fairly frequently.

#51 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 01:50 PM:

Paul, #25: It would, however, be a perfectly appropriate punishment for spammers, online fraudsters, and malicious hackers.

Nicole, #36: I've been rather more sympathetic to people who are intimidated by computers since I realized that it's very like the way I feel about sewing machines -- i.e. it's complicated, it's arcane, and if I touch it the wrong way, it's going to break!

Xopher, #46: Will I get to see you in a kilt at Worldcon? :-)

Various: My ex-husband didn't drive for a long time. He had imperfectly-controlled epilepsy at the time when he would normally have been getting his driver's license, and after that he just worked around it -- walked, took the bus, carpooled. Eventually my workplace announced an upcoming move that would have made it extremely difficult for me to drive him to work; by that time it had been 10 years since he'd had a seizure, so we decided there was no significant risk and he got his license. (We already had 2 cars -- the around-town compact and the con-going minivan.)

More recently, I have a friend here who doesn't drive because she doesn't think she'd be a safe driver... and, honestly, I can't blame her for being intimidated by Houston traffic. In a smaller city, she might do okay.

And if Catherine Tate lives in England, it's quite possible that she's never genuinely needed to learn to drive. A car-free lifestyle is much more practical there than it is here.

#52 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 01:58 PM:

Lee 51: Shorts, maybe. Kilt, probably not (I don't own one).

#53 ::: Sajia Kabir ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:02 PM:

Don't feel so bad. I'm almost 27, and I have acute Excel-phobia, and I've never gotten the hang of putting up internet links. What makes things especially tragic and ironic is that my brother and father started Bangladesh's first computer business, and when my father died in 1991 my mom, a soon-to-be -oppressed-by-my-grandfather Muslim who had little previous experience with computers, dove into the business and managed to keep it afloat for nearly 10 more years. She even put me into one of the business's (called Ganges Computing)computer classes. She still occasionally works at computer companies in Dhaka to support herself and my sister.
So what's your excuse again, Mr McCain?

#54 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:12 PM:

Barack Obama started Harvard Law School in 1988. Lexis was already beginning to edge out the old print WestLaw volumes as the legal research tool, though it would take another decade and a half for Lexis -- and then, WestLaw, to get caselaw and everything else prior to the 80's digitized and programmed. You still need to be able to do the key search of WestLaw print volumes for more historical work, like the search of old land grant titles and many other things.

But Obama was also Law Review -- he's exactly where most adults were when the personal computing age hit, as opposed to the generation right before that grew up with computing.

I believe both he and his wife have spent a lot of time researching online. They are both lawyers. Lawyers like librarians' first impulse about anything is to research it. And now for librarians too, google is the first ready reference source they go to.

As for cell phones, I'm one hell of a computer resources person for research, and I wasn't of the generations that grew up with computing either. But I am nearly cell phone illiterate, and that has to do with my vision. I just can't see the tiny letters and numbers and buttons. It's just too unpleasant and headachy for me to deal with -- no texting for me!

Love, C

#55 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:21 PM:

Maybe someone needs to get McCain to play solitaire on the computer for a while. It's a non-threatening way to get used to them, and it doesn't require fast reflexes. From there, it's easier to move to things like e-mail and using the internet.

#56 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:22 PM:

Another thing people keep forgetting is that Obama worked as a community activist before going to Harvard Law School.

He has a grassroots, fundamental sense of organizing people to act. Every lifetime activist I know were on the internet as soon as e-mail became a tool for wide communication.

The idea that Obama doesn't use the internet for everything we use it for just boggles under these circumstances.

The field of law computerized sooner than any other industry except finance. I think the law industry went there even before newspapers publishing and printing and they were there very early too. (Not the book publishing industry -- shoot they were about the last to computerize. My boss in the early 90's hated me for using my desk computer. She was agin 'em like she was agin everything that was different than it was when she started in the business. Finally they forced her to take a computer class, when she tried to fire me for using the computer.)

#57 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:28 PM:

#56, Constance Ash -

Finally they forced her to take a computer class, when she tried to fire me for using the computer.

Wow. That's an odd reaction.

#58 ::: NelC ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:48 PM:

Re: the difficulty of the British driving test. I took it around ten times before I passed, though that is at the far end of the bell curve. It's not uncommon to fail the first or second test, though most pass by the third attempt, I think.

#59 ::: Emily ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 02:58 PM:

I do not think I could do a three point turn without hitting a curb (kerb), I just learned to downshift and engine brake last month, and I don't check my mirrors nearly often enough.

A 3 point turn is easier to execute than a U turn, particularly with a largish turn radius vehicle and a narrow road. It's very rare to see someone pull a U turn correctly in a car (tho fairly common on a bike). If you didn't learn on a manual transmission, you *wouldn't* get taught downshifting and engine braking. Until fairly recently, automatics were designed in a way that meant neither one gave you real fuel economy gains (which is why you need to know how to do them on a manual...).

I didn't want a license to begin with, but my parents required me to learn (rather on the same principles that meant I was required to learn math). And as my mom dislikes driving automatics and was rather dangerous when driving one, I had to learn on a manual. It wasn't easy, but I did learn despite being very uncoordinated and clumsy. (and now I'm a grownup and I ride my bike everywhere and do not own a car) On the whole, I'm glad they made me learn. It makes biking a lot easier, since I *know* what most cars can and can't do, and I have a good notion of what most *drivers* can do. Most cars are pretty capable, but the drivers often can't use the full capabilities very well.

Sometimes, it's good to learn things that are hard, or you don't like. I hope Senator McCain will not learn this the hard way...

#60 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:02 PM:

I learned to drive in the US at 16 (well, earlier on private roads, but passed my test at 16).

It took me three attempts to pass the British test. I managed it when I was 37. It wasn't the three point turn turn using forward and reverse gears (you can make it a 5-point if you need to) that got me the first two times—it was roundabouts and reversing around a corner.

Fortunately, I can exchange my British license for a Dutch one (I can't do so with my American license), so I don't have to do the whole sodding thing again.

I think that a non-driver could set transport policy in Britiain or the Netherlands, but not in the US. Although I would love to see more of my native country accessible by public transportation, you have to work with the place and the culture you already have.

#61 ::: Brooks Moses ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:10 PM:

Emily @59: Downshifting and engine braking are for fuel economy gains? I can't see how that works at all; what they're for is slowing down the car without using the brakes, which is somewhat important for preventing the brakes from overheating when going down long hills -- though vastly less so now than fifty years ago, due to modern brake technology.

It's certainly possible to use downshifting to actually slow down rather than just holding constant speed on a hill; however, even though some people do it, this is not really a good idea on modern cars since you won't get brake fade from overheating the brakes when you're just stopping, and it's hard on the engine and transmission. About the only thing that saves on is brake wear, and brakes are lots cheaper to replace than engines in transmissions.

#62 ::: R. M. Koske ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:17 PM:

#61, Brooks Moses -

I cannot convince my husband to stop engine-braking as a matter of course. I think he picked it up as a habit when he was teaching himself how to do it (he's a completely self-taught driver, and he's only ever driven manual transmission cars!) and now he doesn't feel the need to change.

#63 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:24 PM:


Not so odd, since she was screwing up the department in every area. She had to be gotten out of her denial of computing some way.

Love, C.

#64 ::: arwel ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:35 PM:

abi @ 60. Do you actually need to exchange your British licence for a Dutch one? According to the DVLA EU/EEA licence holders moving to the UK don't need to exchange their licences (since they're all in EU format now anyway) and if they're still valid at home then they remain valid in the UK until the holder's 70th birthday, or for 3 years if they're already 70+. I'd be surprised if the Dutch don't have a reciprocal rule.

#65 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 03:38 PM:

The Prius has a whole gear for engine braking. It's not explained very well in the manual I got, but I refer to it as 'going-down-the-Grapevine mode', which does describe where it's best used.

(Grapevine grade: several miles of 6 percent grade, and it's scenic as well. Northbound is downhill. Trucks use low gear - or else; it has several truck escape ramps.)

#66 ::: Magenta Griffith ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 04:13 PM:

I don't know how to solve the problems facing the country right now: global climate change causing floods in the Midwest and fires in the West, the rising cost of oil, etc etc.

I want a president smarter than me, a LOT smarter. Obama strikes me as smarter, and also that he can recognize and encourage smart people to join his administration.

McCain strikes me a perhaps a hair smarter than the current Resident, but then, so is my cat. Being proud of being ignorant is horrifying.

#67 ::: Jay Carlson ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 04:14 PM:

Argh. It's "set up us the bomb", dammit.

In Diablo II a small set of the players had pretty much found all of the tricks where different skills could reinforce each other. If you grouped the right way, you'd have to start wearing faster movement gear in order to keep up with the expanding wave of carnage, even on the hardest level of the game. This was a little shocking to outsiders. For instance, the nastiest boss mage pack in the game was resistant to just about everything. But my necromancer had a big "lower resistances" curse, which let some sorceresses quickly static-field his HP down quickly. Then I exploded the corpses I had left lying next to where he appeared. This trick takes seconds if done right. One of the newer players asked "what happen?", and I got to say with a straight face....

#68 ::: Tom Barclay ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 04:29 PM:


Constance, you'll love this one.

It was 1990, and I was trying to transition from classical music program host to commercial radio newscaster. I enrolled in classes at a for-profit school with a good record of placing its students in the industry.

No typewriters in the practice booths. No paper available. We were expected (By tradition? No one ever explained) to mark up the wire copy - if we could find any - in the margins of the flimsy.

This seemed like a waste of time to me, so I created a HyperCard stack for news rewrites, with a built-in timer for each story and the cumulative time for the total news block. I dragged my (new!) Mac Plus into the practice closet and had at it.

The director of the school stopped me after my second day using the stack. "People don't like you," he said. "They think you're trying to show them up with that fancy stuff. And, besides, you should know you'll never see a computer in a radio station."

#69 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 04:49 PM:

Xopher, #52: That can be remedied.

P J Evans, #65: Would that be the hill of "30,000 Pounds of Bananas" fame?

#70 ::: Carl ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 05:14 PM:

"It's a series of tubes!"

#71 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 05:25 PM:

Lee, the one that Google is finding me refers to Scranton, PA. Don't think so. (The Grapevine's probably seen some interesting incidents involving tomatoes. Or oranges. And maybe even grapes.)

#72 ::: Roy G. Ovrebo ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 06:59 PM:

Scott H. @ #32: I'm actually more worried about the public policy implications of natural language processing. Historically the degree to which privacy can be invaded has always been implicitly constrainted by technical limitations. You always had to have a human listening in on the other end of the bug. I don't think that's a safe bet anymore.

These days it's relatively convenient to turn spoken words into ASCII. Warrantless wiretapping doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. I personally think that natural language comprehension--some degree thereof, anyway--really is inevitable, probably sooner rather than later. What happens when it's technically possible to mechanically monitor every conversation everywhere always?

How far has natural language processing got by now anyway? I know you can get a computer to transcribe your carefully enunciated language of choice, but how does it handle "real speech" with accents and foreign languages?

#73 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 07:05 PM:

Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today
Yes! We have no bananas
No bananas in Scranton, PA

#74 ::: Ginger ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 09:15 PM:

I just realized this afternoon that I am taking roundabouts backwards*. It's a good thing this one was just a circular driveway, but I didn't even think twice. I've noticed that my brain has a Rule: if there's no lines on the road, the driving is on the other side. If I had to test for the British driving license, I'd need to drive a road without lines marked on it.

*For Americans. For British rules, it was correct. I blame my 2+ years in the Caribbean, plus that 12-day period of driving in Ireland.

#75 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 24, 2008, 11:41 PM:

P J @ 38 - Correction noted and appreciated! (Will have to watch again more closely.)

turtle @ 44 - Good point, and one that did come up last night. (I said, "That I'm astounded says something about the society I live in, doesn't it?" and my friend said, "And that she doesn't *have* to drive says something about the public transportation over there, doesn't it?") The U.S. is very auto-centric, I think, and, at least in my personal experience corners of it, people of my acquaintance generally either A) learn to drive as soon as possible, or B) can't afford a car.

(This whole sub-thread I inadvertently started is making me feel embarrassingly like I failed the "avoid being U.S.-centric on the internet!" test. Apologies all. I usually score higher on that sucker. But the thread has been a good read.)

#76 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2008, 10:08 AM:

I think the difference here is mostly age. As you get older, busier, and more set in your ways, it's common not to learn the newest tools and tricks, unless something forces you to do so.

I think researching stuff on the internet is great, if you:

a. Have enough background to minimally filter the nonsense from the real material.

b. Have access to people you can ask about your conclusions, so that the convincing paper from the known quack doesn't fool you. (This is one of the major advantages of weblogs by working scientists in specific areas--if Orac cites a paper on surgery technique, or Razib cites a paper on evolution, they're unlikely to be marketing fluff or quackery.)

I suspect there's an art to using internet references and other independent research when you have access to world-class expert advisors in the area in question. You want to see the disputes in the field and the reactions of other informed people to your advisors' positions and your policies, but you have to recognize that reading some stuff on the internet isn't going to turn you into an expert on Middle Eastern politics or K-12 education or energy policy or whatever.

#77 ::: Ronit ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2008, 10:36 AM:

On the front page of the latest Navy Times "Military MySpace: This One's Not Blocked by DoD". Does John McCain understand what this means?

#78 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2008, 11:41 AM:

It means something unpatriotic and terroristic that needs to be stopped..?

#79 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2008, 12:02 PM:

#68 ::: Tom Barclay

You are right! I do love that one.


Love, C.

#80 ::: Constance Ash ::: (view all by) ::: June 25, 2008, 12:14 PM:

Research on the internet tends to mean different things to different people too.

For me this includes electronic database research, all those incredible information resources that you can probably access from home via your public library's website -- or least many of them. From my home computer, by going to the NYPL's website I can access WorldCat and many, many other databases.

Though if I want the marvelous, marvelous JSTOR, I have to be at one of the NYPL's research libraries -- it is so expensive it doesn't allow for home acces. The same with LexisNexis -- unless you are at a university library, you can't get that at all. You can get Factiva though, at a single NYPL research library.

You also can access from home the many, many marvelous resources on university websites, the LOC site, the Smithsonian site. Google books has made so many useful out of print books available from right at home too. The time all of these have saved in terms of research is incalcuable, including cutting and pasting the biblio info reference resource immediately into your book's citations and reference list-format. What a change from shoeboxes of index cards. What a change from laborious searching out the libraries that have what you are looking for, making expensive phone calls or writing letters to find out if you can access it, setting up an interlibrary loan, or even traveling to the library or archive to read - look at it. Just amazing.

Love, C.

#81 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2008, 10:10 AM:

Carl @ 70

And Doctor Seuss is illustrating it!

#82 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2008, 10:34 AM:

If you do any sort of statistical research, and like to be able to see your data in various forms of visualization, there's a tool on the net that's pure chart junkie porn: Many Eyes.

The visualization software is opensource, and the repository of datasets is also opensource. Anyone can put in datasets, create new forms of visualization, or use any of the visualization techniques on any of the datasets. This is the foot in the door of open data. It just might make it more difficult in the future for the kleptocrats to keep their deals a secret. Understand that, McCain!

#83 ::: Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2008, 10:37 AM:

Oops; got a little too enthusiastic and forgot to mention that site hosts the software as a webapp, too, so you don't have to download and build the code in order to use it. I expect this makes its user community much larger, since you don't have to be a 5th level computer geek to apply it to yours or someone else' data.

#84 ::: Lin D ::: (view all by) ::: June 26, 2008, 12:00 PM:

McCain's lack of computer knowledge is now being lampooned by Jeannie Moos on CNN. Hilariously, yet cuttingly. hehe

#85 ::: Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little ::: (view all by) ::: June 27, 2008, 11:26 AM:

Well, McCain's campaign managers, at least, understand the internet, at least somewhat. They're laying down astroturf.

Help spread the word about John McCain on news and blog sites. Your efforts to help get the message out about John McCain's policies and plan for the future is one of the most valuable things you can do for this campaign. You know why John McCain should be the next President of the United States and we need you to tell others why.

Select from the numerous web, blog and news sites listed here, go there, and make your opinions supporting John McCain known. Once you’ve commented on a post, video or news story, report the details of your comment by clicking the button below. After your comments are verified, you will be awarded points through the McCain Online Action Center.

Excerpted from McCain's "Blog Interact" page, spotlighted at the Mother Jones Blog.

Would it be very naughty, do you think, if we were to use the "Blog Interact" list to follow the hired trolls around and do a countermessaging? Or would that simply be damage control?

#86 ::: Mez sets off spam alert siren ::: (view all by) ::: June 22, 2009, 06:08 AM:

A-oo-gah! Aa!-oo-gah! <points to #86 >

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