Angus King for US Senate

Maine is lucky to have six five people running for our open US Senate seat. While Olympia Snowe will be extremely difficult to replace in terms of her stature and impact, two people running have the best chance to follow in her principled footsteps.

Former Governor Angus King has been the front-runner in the race since announcing his candidacy in March, both in terms of poll numbers and contributions. While Mr. King is running as an independent, he’s been consistently coy and curiously vague when asked whether he’ll caucus with Democrats if elected. Ironically, if that worst-case scenario plays out, King may end up being less independent than Republican Olympia Snowe.

Current Maine secretary of state Charlie Summers is a public servant, successful businessperson, and Iraq War veteran. While I consider him qualified and likely to rise to the calling of the office, unfortunately Mr. Summers’ campaign — and it’s many surrogates — have waged a nasty, often times untrue and completely negative campaigned aimed solely at making Mr. King look bad.

Lacking any shred of positive message and offering nothing other than defensive reasons to elect Mr. Summers, his campaign has never shed the pall of a desperate, angry crusade by a major party that appears more concerned with power and control than with carrying on Ms. Snowe’s impressive and honorable legacy.

Like Mr. Summers, Mr. King is an experienced business person and public servant. While Mr. Summers has squandered his impressive record on a soulless campaign, Mr. King has run a positive campaign, largely by himself and supported by his record and vision, without the excessive and aggressive push of party insiders and special interests bent on claiming his seat.

Both candidates earned the right to be considered. Angus King deserves to be our next senator because he has more clearly laid out his vision for following in Olympia Snowe’s footsteps as a leader free of insurmountable debt to a power-hungry major party.

No one politician can, as Mr. King has suggested, “fix” Washington. But if we elect a leader who can remain independent — not just use it as a prop to get elected — that’s a step in the right direction.

Yes on Question One

Next week, Mainers heading to the polls to vote for president, senator, representative, and local leaders also have the chance to legalize same-sex marriage in a ballot measure commonly known as “Question One”. A similar measure passed in 2009, but was overturned by Maine’s People’s Veto process just seven months later.

Three years later, with a second chance, it’s time that Maine people approve question one and finally make it legal for same-sex couples to marry in our great state.

It’s easy and popular to call same-sex marriage a “complicated” issue, but I disagree. Both for individual liberty, and for the good of society as a whole, I think it’s quite simple and essential to support the expansion of the marriage contract to include same-sex couples.

Separate from its religious overtones, and along side the rule of law, money, and freedom, marriage is an essential, foundational element of a civilized society. At its most basic, it is a contract between two willing participants that provides both individuals, as well as society in general, with widespread security, stability, and, yes, occasional happiness.

Opponents of the law have little ground to stand on. I see two primary arguments levied against allowing same-sex couples the right to marry. The first is that religious institutions will be unfairly harmed – in Maine’s case, that concern is respected and mitigated by the language of the law, which as written protects religious organizations from legal retribution should they choose not to perform same-sex ceremonies.

The second most common opposition comes in the form of a vague “threat” to marriage, citing “studies” and claiming that marriage will actually decline if more couples are granted the right to the marriage contract. The leading organization opposing the law, “Protect Maine Marriage”, goes so far as to claim that “When marriage no longer has its historic meaning and understanding, over time fewer and fewer people will marry.”

The lunacy and desperation of that argument is staggering. The institution of marriage is more, not less necessary in a society fighting war and economic decline; in that context marriage is as important today as ever. In its time of need, welcoming more consenting adult couples into the institution will strengthen, not weaken, marriage’s position in general by expanding it to include a class of people devoted enough to fight for the right to participate in it. It will also strengthen, not weaken, families as children see their family unit validated by society on symbolic (and many) practical levels.

You can often tell when an argument on any topic is on its last legs: it’s when fear will be grandiosely unveiled, a last-ditch effort to confuse and deter people from doing what they know is simple and just. In that spirit, Protect Marriage Maine writes on their website that the law, if passed, would “result in profound consequences for society.”

They are absolutely correct.

It would mean more people have the legal access that they deserve to one of our society’s most important elements. It would mean children’s lives enhanced by stability. It would mean our fellow citizens would be treated more humanely in the eyes of the law and as they go about their daily lives. It would mean a little, maybe a lot, more happiness in this world.

Those are indeed some profound consequences.

Groundwork: A WordPress starter theme

Inspired by my love for WordPress theme development and a great presentation by developer Sean Butze I attended at this year’s WordCamp Boston, I’m happy to present Groundwork, a WordPress starter theme.

Beyond the usual starter theme basics, Groundwork features many nice customizations to a stock WordPress install, including:

  • Custom log in screen logo & styles;
  • Customized admin area including logo and dashboard;
  • Customized/advanced wp-config and wp-config-local (yes, that’s outside the scope of a standard theme);
  • Basic responsive layout;
  • LESS for better stylesheets;
  • Best practices for speed and mark-up.

In short, Groundwork aims to encourage a more tailored and unique WordPress experience for you and/or your clients from how their site responds on multiple devices to how the admin feels when editing a page.

Groundwork is heavily inspired by the following people and projects, which I encourage you to check out:

I welcome your comments and feedback, and I hope it helps you do great work.

View/Download Groundwork on Github

Why I don’t like the political conventions

Note: I originally posted this on my WordPress.com blog.

Against my better judgement, I’ve found myself tweeting about the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past week. My tweets on the subject are usually sarcastic and/or attempts to be humorous, so I want to explain in a bit more detail why I think these are inane and even poisonous events.

2008 Republican convention

2008 Republican convention – Courtesy PBS NewsHour

Conventions are a shining example of the broken political system

Political conventions are a blatant reminder that most of American politics is not about governing, or innovating, or moving our society forward, but rather is about the two parties grappling for power, or attempting to hold onto power. As somebody who is not a member of either party, I find this shameless acknowledgement of the endless power struggle to be incredibly depressing.

Gary Vaynerchuck once said that one of the problems with America is that people put more effort into their weddings than their marriages. The same is true for politics: Governing is hard, messy, and wrought with failure; campaigning brings the glow of attention and the ability to say anything without consequence. Conventions celebrate the former excessively while completely ignoring the latter.

Conventions are insanely self-centered

No other segment of American life – not sports, not celebrity, not even business – spends as much time explicitly celebrating itself as the two main political parties (and their politicians) do during their conventions. As citizens, many of us are gleefully complicit, praising the days of empty rhetoric, self-serving video productions and ignoring the complete lack of substance or self-reflection. If you doubt that, watch as pontificating speeches about personal experiences are praised – and then the praise is praised!

Conventions bring out the worst in spectators

Like a YouTube video of bystanders idly filming a crime instead of attempting to intervene, I feel like people are at their most viciously partisan during conventions, whether it be predictably attacking every scrap of their opponents’ convention, or blindly celebrating every aspect of their own party’s event. The denial of reality and the refusal to be honest is established as a tone by the conventions, and then perpetuated by partisans.

What to do

To start, the conventions should no longer be given airtime on major networks. It’s ridiculous that major broadcast networks continue to provide prime-time air to the conventions In a time of hundreds of news and entertainment sources available across every possible medium and device providing years of coverage of every detail of the campaign.

Parties have the resources and the technology available to broadcast the conventions on their own – they no longer need or deserve the media frenzy supported by prime time air time.

In an ideal world, I’d love it if both parties retired the outdated and increasingly absurd tradition and replaced it with a new kind of event that placed integrity above pageantry. Give up the meaningless (and sometimes corrupt) nomination process and replace at least some of the endless cavalcade of speeches with honest assessments of the candidates’ records, plans, and promises.

Warm as you write

From this fascinating Paris Review interview, Ernest Hemingway on creativity and the wring process:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Mike Daisey and this American denial

Image from Public Theater website

Two things are really bothering me about today’s news that monolougist Mike Daisey fabricated portions of his hit performance piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Let me get something out of the way out front: I’ve known Mike since about 1996. He was an advisor/supporter of my high school’s speech & debate team, of which I was a member. I got to know him and I considered him a mentor. Critics can easily point to that fact as an invalidation of what I have to say – go ahead; I don’t really care. In fact, this whole thing is about critics and how they use the weapons of rhetorical misdirection to further their cause (or in this case, obscure the cause of the other).

The first thing that bothers me is the terrible news that by making up portions of his theatrical piece — and then letting, and helping, that theatrical piece spread to the media, where he reported it and let it be reported as individual facts — Mike has undermined the essential, and incredibly relevant, truth of the situation. No, not the truth that Apple is evil, or the people of China are being subjicaded by an industrial complex that places profit value over human rights.

I’m talking about the truth that as our craving for an ever-increasing schedule of cheap gadgets increases, we go into deeper and deeper denial about exactly how those gadgets arrive here so quickly and so cheaply.

Why are we in so much denial about our insatiable desire for the next? Why does our pride flow so freely at the release cycle of electronics, but ebb so violently at the simple truth about the conditions under which those electronics are produced? That, folks, is the world’s finest example of shame. It’s shame on a grand, hypocritical, American scale. The irony is that it would be even more American to own up to the reality and, for lack of a better word, embrace it. No, it’s the absolutely insane cycle of cover-ups, denials, misdirections, and attacks that really has me baffled.

Predictably, widely-respected Apple blogger John Gruber is the one of the loudest of all Daisey’s critics today. Mr. Gruber remained comparatively silent on the topic of Apple’s supply chain even as it blew up into a two-month-long major national news story and ensuing conversation about an essential element of the company that is his sole beat. As he notes himself, he wrote only one piece – all of one paragraph – about Daisey’s appearance on This American Life; I can find only two other mentions on his site of the conversation around Apple’s manufacturing processes since the story broke in January. In one, Mr. Gruber calls the story “Apple’s biggest challenge.” Note the choice of words: This isn’t an issue for us to face as a nation of consumers; this is a “challenge” for Apple to overcome.

With that perspective, it’s no wonder Mr. Gruber came out swinging today. Since the news broke this afternoon that NPR’s This American Life program is retracting its “Agony and the Ecstacy” themed episdode, Mr. Gruber has now run five six items (to date — it’s only 8:15pm EST as I write this) condemning Daisey.

In one item, Mr. Gruber declares that the only reason he’d been quiet on this issue (prior to today, obviously) is because he credits his “spidey sense” for alerting him to the fact that Daisey lied. Mr. Gruber didn’t share this insight at any point as the story exploded; he was so busy keeping his mouth shut, he couldn’t even be bothered to publicize his suspicions about the #1 critic of the company he works so admirably to defend and promote. That’s not shame; that’s shameless.

The other thing that bothers me about this news isn’t about the universal implications of a society that can’t be honest with itself. It’s about Mike. What a shame for a thinker and performer so incredibly gifted with the ability to see into us and come up with some simple truths, present them in a compelling way, and move onto something entirely different just as we wanted more.

I truly hope Mike can, unlike so many other people who fail notably and publicly, actually learn from this experience to create a message that is tighter and more trustworthy. Every artist makes a pact with his audience; Mike’s pact is that he helps us question and understand the hard truth about ourselves. If he wants to regain our trust as an entertainer, he should keep up his end of that bargain.

In the meantime, our appetite for gadgets spins madly on. Apple’s latest iPad became available last night at midnight, with the corresponding (and by accounts deserving) adulations following dutifully.

Along with that product launch comes the news that Apple’s stock price is over $600 per share. As a proud capitalist through and through, I couldn’t be happier for them, for our economy, and for the positive outlook made possible by their success. But at least I’m damn fine with the truth about why, and how, they earned it.

Critics like Mr. Gruber — and there are many others — are celebrating today’s news not because it proves Apple is right and Mike Daisey is wrong. Rather, they’re insanely relieved that the painful, potentially embarrassing journey to the truth — not about Apple, but about ourselves — might actually, finally, be cut short. Once we do stop, it will be much harder to get back on that path.

Mike, you almost brought us there. I’m just sorry it will be your fault if we don’t quite make it.

Bangor Daily News blurs the line between news and advertising

The Bangor Daily News is back at it with more ethically-questionable practices on its website, this time in the form of its new “BDN Marketplace News” section which attempts to disguise advertisements as news headlines.

A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section

A screenshot of the BDN Marketplace News section

What’s Going On?

At the bottom of article pages, the “BDN Marketplace News” appears directly under a larger “Similar Articles” heading, and uses the same font styles and layout as article headlines. Most deceptive, though, is the inclusion of the word “News”, clearly meant to suggest to visitors that those headlines are news.

This approach goes even beyond the practice employed by some other news websites that place advertisements within a “Related Sites” or “Around the Web” element; in those cases the elements are clearly marked as “Sponsored” or “Advertisements”, or they actually point to relevant articles, not to ads.

What’s the Problem?

It should be pretty clear: The “BDN Marketplace News” advertising element is intentionally designed to deceive visitors; that kind of attitude towards the people who give you traffic and ad revenue is a short-sighted and doomed strategy which absolutely threatens the paper’s long-term health. Combined with my coverage of the BDN’s deceptive “ad bar” back in January 2011, this creates a disturbing pattern of disrespect for visitors that should be addressed immediately.

What can they do?

The Bangor Daily News should immediately revise the “BDN Marketplace News” section to include a clear disclaimer that the links are “Advertising” or “Sponsored Listings” or similar language. To go one step further, they should also link the disclaimer to a page with more information about the Marketplace and how listings are added. This kind of update wouldn’t put them ahead of the pack on ethics, but it would bring them in line with current standards in the newspaper industry.

In the rush to shore up revenues, it can be easy to clutter up a website with a variety of “innovative” advertising placements, but a company that cares about its audience and is interested in long-term growth over short-term fixes can and should be held to a higher standard.