Son of a son of an Admiral

Less than a month into his tour of duty off the coast of Vietnam, Lieutenant John McCain was shot down about 3,500 feet above Hanoi on a bombing run. He spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war; he was held in solitary confinement, tortured, beaten until he could not stand. An admiral’s son and a Navy pilot, he came to believe, like many pilots, that the war had been winnable, if only it had been fought right. Which he still believes about Iraq.

McCain never had a chance to deal with the reality of it all. As a fighter jock sleeping on an aircraft carrier every night, he was unlikely to grasp the big picture in a full one-year tour but there was no way he *got* it in his first month.

Any one of us aviators who had been shot down so early and tested so rigorously would never have been able to perceive the absurdity of it all. Now that I know that John McCain was such a neophyte upon capture, I cannot take his views on Vietnam—or Iraq—seriously. I respect his experience: one that I may not have met as well. Interestingly, US Vet Dispatch, a rabid pro-war site supporting veterans, says that the Admiral’s son was not particularly skilled at being a pilot or being a prisoner of war, at least according to their report, which reads like something in Rolling Stone.

[In 1965-66,] McCain was in flight training and having different troubles. Surviving a crash unscathed in Corpus Christi Bay, he managed to later collide another training plane into power lines in Spain.

Despite the crashes, he was allowed to continue flying as a Navy aviator. Luck, or maybe it was the admiral, had smiled on him…

On Oct. 26, 1967, the admiral’s son while flying his 23rd mission over North Vietnam, once again fell from the sky, this time landing in the hands of a brutal enemy. He was beaten and bayoneted. His shoulder was smashed and his right calf was nearly perpendicular to his knee.

The severely wounded McCain was finally thrown on the back of a truck and hauled to the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison camp. Immediately, his captors began to interrogate him using sadistic methods they had perfected on hundreds of captured U.S. servicemen before him.

His interrogators demanded military information. When he refused, his guards kicked and pounded him mercilessly.

McCain admits that three to four days after he was captured, he promised the Vietnamese, “I’ll give you military information if you will take me to the hospital.”

McCain also admits that the Vietnamese rushed him to a hospital, but denies he was given “special medical treatment” because of his promise.

He claims he was given medical care normally unavailable to captured Americans only because the Vietnamese learned he was the son of Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., the soon-to-be commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific including those fighting in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese figured that because POW McCain’s father was of such high military rank that he was of royalty or the governing circle in the United States. Thereafter the communists bragged that they had captured “the crown prince”and treated him as a “special prisoner.”

Less than two weeks after McCain was taken to a hospital, Hanoi’s press began quoting him giving specific military information, including the name of the aircraft carrier on which he was based, numbers of U.S. pilots that had been lost, the number of aircraft in his flight, information about location of rescue ships and the order of which his attack was supposed to take place.

There is also evidence that McCain received “special” medical treatment from a Soviet physician.

After he was out of the hospital, McCain continued cooperating with the North Vietnamese for a period of three years. He made radio broadcasts for the communists and met with foreign delegations, including the Cubans. He was interviewed by at least two North Vietnamese generals one of whom was Vietnam’s national hero, General Vo Nguyen Giap.

On June 4, 1969, a U.S. wire service story headlined “PW Songbird Is Pilot Son of Admiral,” reported one of McCain’s radio broadcasts: “Hanoi has aired a broadcast in which the pilot son of the United States commander in the Pacific, Adm. John McCain, purportedly admits to having bombed civilian targets in North Vietnam and praises medical treatment he has received since being taken prisoner.

“The broadcast was beamed to American servicemen in South Vietnam as a part of a propaganda series attempting to counter charges by U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird that American prisoners are being mistreated in North Vietnam.”

McCain says he violated the Code of Conduct only when the North Vietnamese brutally tortured him. He further claims that he was so distraught afterwards that he tried to commit suicide. He has never explained why his “aid to the enemy” continued for more than three years.

Even though there are no reports in the public record from other POWs who witnessed McCain’s claims of torture and heroics or his attempted suicide, the American media has accepted his version of events word for word, no questions asked.

John McCain is an expert on what it’s like to be captured after a few weeks of a cameo role as a Navy fighter pilot. but he’s no expert on the Vietnam experience. Though I never experienced a fraction of the pain imposed on Senator McCain, I am, relatively speaking, an expert on the reality of the South Vietnamese experience which was, I assert, the point of the entire sordid exercise.

And that’s the point of all this. We haven’t lost in Iraq. Like Vietnam, we’ve simply taken on a project that we never could have won. That truth brings on board a more important truth: If you’ve never experienced combat, yet you still embrace the undefined Victory-in-Iraq notion, you are a fool.

There are a lot of heroes pecking at keyboards.

Hooray, Hooray, The First of May!

Twenty-one years ago, I helped my friend Bill Sperber create a trust company from scratch. One of our clients was in his late 80s, and terminally ill. It was hard to look at the left side of his neck, caved in from a cancer operation.

He spent the last spring of his life fine-tuning an already well-crafted estate plan. It seemed like a terrible set of priorities to me. I didn’t appreciate that he did it for for the woman and children he loved.

On May 1, 1993, he shuffled into the office, stooped over as always from osteoporosis. with a gleam in his eye and an all-conquering  grin. He asked all of us, rhetorically,

Do you know what we can say today?

He grinned at our cluelessness:

Hooray! Hooray!

The first of May,

Outdoor screwing starts today!

He was dead by fall. But not vanquished.

(Posted a decade later by request and by reverence in 2013)

Making a difference

re-published from 1/22/2003

Is there any urge more basic than for your life to be of consequence? No matter how we define consequence, most of our instincts and actions seem aimed towards it.

Forging a Confederation

I used to live in Philadelphia and I’d walk around Old Town and I got it that the Founding Brothers were technologists in many ways. They too were dealing with an interesting bandwidth accident exhibiting unintended outcomes. England’s purpose for the Colonies, of course, was to get more stuff as cheaply as possible and to tax the colonists as much as possible. But bandwidth got in the way.

This was such a wild land that, for the better part of a century, the colonies were more isolated from each other than from Mother England. Gradually though, wagon trails were built and it became more convenient for the Carolinas to deal with Pennsylvania than with England. The other virtue was that the colonists, though profoundly different north-to-south, related to each other far better than to the Court of St. James and the East India Company. By the 1770’s, the differences could no longer be ignored. Like any network, the colonies paid closest attention to the highest fidelity signal.

What’s interesting is how few people set the direction for the American Experiment. Only the 56 white guys in Carpenter’s Hall understood what a leap they were taking with the Declaration of Independence. It’s not like they were being closely controlled by their state legislatures which were several days’ ride away. It was never a certainty that Tom Jefferson’s stirring Enlightenment-era declarations of individual freedom would set the stage for their conclusions. He did it because he could and he wanted to be of consequence.

Eleven years later, the 39 signers of the Constitution acted just as independently in setting down the rules of engagement for the people and their rulers. No one paid much attention to their secret work until they were surprised by the many changes the Constitution proposed. The fight over the document was fierce and the debate thoughtful, but they didn’t revise what the standards body had hammered out. So the twig was bent and that was the direction our nation inclined. In October 1788, the old Congress disbanded quietly to make way for an entirely new form of governance.

That was some serious standard-setting. Today, we’re the delegates setting the standards for the world that will follow us. Relatively speaking, we’re even fewer than the four score or so men who did the real work of putting symbols on parchment. Some of the symbols we’re using are pretty arcane, but they set standards anyway, which will mold society as surely as did the Federalist papers.

Writing the Human Code

“Humanity [is on] a personal quest to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain. On that quest, politics is simply a roadblock of stentorian baboons” Tom Robbins

So a few will debate nuances no one else comprehends. Even fewer will lay down the words that free our progeny. What works will grow and the rest will wither, as it always has. Someday we’ll see that the Toms, Jefferson and Robbins, were right in seeing that as long as there are willing followers there will be exploitive leaders.

We’re learning how to follow our collective gut, add what we can, use what works and leave something better behind. Maybe this isn’t an apocalypse but a parenthesis and the age of hierarchy is an interruption in organic evolution as it’s always gone on.

Doing sensible things is what makes us consequential.

The Winter of our Discontents

Last month, Doc riffed about a conference held at Georgetown yesterday, Digital Power and Its Discontents:

The title and description raised a number of questions for me. Is power always a sum of something? Does disruption always subtract power from whatever it disrupts? What is “digital power” and how is it applied? What makes private and public “sectors”? Are they really that separate? Why does the possessive pronoun “their” apply to citizens?

The word balance calls to mind something like the image on the left. You have a sum of X in one place, and it’s balanced by a sum of Y in another. For many subjects involving power the metaphor applies. There is a given sum of gold in the world, for example. But does power always pile up in ways that a scale suggests? Does it pile at all?…

…For that conference, and for the rest of us in the meantime, I invite considering this: The entity with the most power to gain is the individual…Giving individuals more power is the job ProjectVRM and its development communities have taken up. But it will happen anyway.

It’s tempting to focus on what Big Bad Government and Big Bad Companies are doing. They hog spotlights they deserve in any case. But digital technology makes many other places no less deserving of spotlights. Our ability to learn, to inform and to act, will only grow. If we’re busy being discontented with others who have more power at the moment, we’ll get less done. And we’ll miss out on a lot of the fun.

Doc and I agree that what’s most fun is ‘building shit’. That means web applications that have a reasonable shot at routing around our most vexing economic and societal constraints. And we agree that if you’re discontented, you’re less likely to build something with that magic route-around power. Lots of work has been done, on projects with a good purpose, but they all seem to be focused on politics rather than government.

Doc’s ProjectVRM seeks to invert the power balance between customers and vendors, while my personal project is to invert the power balance between lawmakers and voters. I had no interest in attending the Georgetown event because I’m a guilty instigator of the Tragedy of the Netroots I described last month. Following the Howard Dean half-time celebration-cum-meltdown in 2003-4, we Internet utopians just knew that We-the-People were about to wrest control of the political power levers from the political hacks. The fact that nothing even close to this happened should cause We-the-Netroots to reconsider our assumptions. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, people convene meetings like the one at Georgetown to opine where all this is going.

The mechanisms behind We-the-Netroots’ collective failure were a mystery to me until I came across Kevin Kelly citing The Shirky Principle, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” Kelly asserts that “complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem”. Kelly notes the tension between institutions’ business as usual and edge phenomena:

In his brilliant, classic book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clay Christensen demonstrates how disruptive technologies almost always arise from the margins of an industry, where they start out as insignificant, or toy, solutions. Honda’s hobbyist electric bicycles were no threat to the big four automobile companies, until electric bikes become motorcycles and motorcycles became small efficient cars. Cheap crumby dot matrix printers were no threat to big offset printing companies until dot matrix became inkjet printers and inkjects became the HP Indigo 5000 on-demand printers. In each case, the solutions were marginal, barely working, at first, and therefore ignored.

And therefore huge.

Back on station

My WordPress blog was hacked by a Romanian over a year ago. With so much going on, I was slow to get help. Finally, Doc’s impatience with me prevailed, and the amazing Christoph Berendes provided the secret sauce I lacked. Partially, Chris was motivated because he’s been displaying a quote and link from this blog since 2004,

Responding to 9/11

… we need to be warriors: take our losses, bury our dead, isolate our exposures, repair specific flaws in our systems and stick to our mission plan: … In America’s third century, [it] has not changed for 228 years: Our God-given purpose is to demonstrate that a varied populace from disparate origins can live peacefully under an open government that governs minimally but humanely.

Britt Blaser, 2004

Chris didn’t like his link telling people that my blog would harm our computers. That’s not my aim. I just wanna hurt our brains. Some friends know that my project, the Independence Year Foundation , has evolved away from the iYear branding to a two-part platform called iVote4U. That’s because it’s a better way to state what’s in the tin.

Here’s the current description, with enough links to screw up your weekend:

The iVote4UPolitician Management & Support System

Nutshell:

Politicians care mostly about money and votes. The iVote4U Politician management system equips voters to manage politicians like coaches manage players: withhold money and votes from uncooperative politicians and find and elect better ones.

In practice, iVote4U helps you manage your politicians as easily as you manage your iTunes:

Rate, Promote, Collect, Discard politicians & never attend a party meeting.

Why? Because there is no system of collaboration sites for constituents to surround their politician with candor, collaboration and criticism. A site owned by the government, a party or a politician doesn’t provide this.

iVote4U: two parts that work together.

Part 1: a set of spaces, one per US representative.

The spaces are for constituents to meet, talk, and influence their reps.

Part 2: a Facebook app for voters to pledge action.
David Weinberger, Ph.D.: “The trick is that the app is set up so the rep can be certain that the

citizen is in fact one of her/his constituents.”

iVote4U’s Facebook Application Services

  1. Voter home page, with politician action panels
  2. Candidates for each office you vote for.
  3. Dashboard: Politicians you’ve “touched” in any way.
  4. Vote and Money Pledge manager.
  5. Vote bombs: Vote challenges you’ve issued or supported.
  6. Causes: the Facebook Causes you’ve sent to politicians.
  7. Invite Friends to join iVote4U.
  1. Politician Action Panel elements:
  1. Become a certified constituent to make politicians listen.
  2. Say Yes-No as a snap indicator of support.
  3. Pledge your vote with a firm calendar commitment.
  4. OWN your politicians: pledge to vote in the Primary.
  5. Pledge money to your favorite politicians.
  6. Form a powerful voting bloc supporting a Facebook Cause.
  7. Send a smiley, a frown or other emotion to your politicians.

Documents and links

DGSNA Social Networks A paper written by Britt Blaser, David Weinberger and Joe Trippi, accepted by the Digital Government Society of North America for presentation at its annual conference, May 2009. Subtitle: How Citizens can Aggregate their Money and Votes to Define Digital Government
USA 3.0 Returning to the Founders’ Vision by adding direct voter oversight of lawmakers in Virtual Political Districts
iVote4U Federation How the Virtual Political Districts relate to the iVote4U Facebook app
DGSNA paper compared to the iVote4U Federation Compares the recommendations in the DGSNA paper to the services provided by the

iVote4U communities andFacebook app

Power of Constituents Why constituent communication is so much more effective than email or nonprofit

campaigns, based on research by John Hird, Georgetown Univ.

Activist Guide How to harness constituents to manage legislation in committees
Virtual Leaders How “Virtual Leaders” can be a powerful force in politics
Benefits handout A single page overview, oriented to tech-savvy political activists
Misty Smith goes to Washington How a newcomer can use iVote4U to challenge an entrenched incumbent
Zipped package The above nine documents compressed into a single package (18 MB)
Super Voter Benefits Why blocs of certified constituents matter so much.

Analysis based on Power, Knowledge and Politics, John Hird, 2005

Dean Campaign papers Britt Blaser’s papers and documents developed in 2003-4

Who’s behind the iVote4U system?

The design and vision is provided by the Independence Year Foundation, a Not-for-Profit corporation. The Facebook iVote4U apps leverage the community and connectivity of the world’s largest social network.

The 585+ virtual political jurisdictions are being designed, built, hosted, maintained and supported by the companies who built and support whitehouse.gov: Acquia Inc. and Phase2 Technology. (They can’t and won’t tell you that, but it’s public knowledge)

Running out of Sugar in a Beet Field

I have a default action when I run into the absurdity of grand potential limited by unimaginative capital. I haul out my tattered copy of Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All and re-read the best single paragraph ever written on economics:

During periods of so-called economic depression, societies suffer for want of all manner of essential goods, yet investigation almost invariably discloses that there are plenty of goods available. Plenty of coal in the ground, corn in the fields, wool on the sheep. What is missing is not materials but an abstract unit of measurement called ‘money.’ It is akin to a starving woman with a sweet tooth lamenting that she can’t bake a cake because she doesn’t have any ounces. She has butter, flour, eggs, milk, and sugar, she just doesn’t have any ounces, any pinches, any pints.(Skinny Legs and All, 1990)