Saturday, February 19, 2005

Credibility and Incredibility

The nature of the blogosphere is such that anyone with access to a keyboard can post any claim, no matter how tenuous and unsupported, and at least create the presumption that a falsehood is the truth, that up is down, that war is peace, and that 2 + 2 = 5.

The more seemingly knowledgable the poster, the more likely he or she is to be believed. A posting by someone who reports they went to the courthouse and examined a deed transaction will earn a certain degree of trust. An infelicity of language may diminish that trust. A demonstrated inability to read or understand the process of deed recordings can further diminish that trust. And once the poster can be clearly identified and is previously known to be a prevaricator, all credibility disappears.

It works the other way, too. Assume a poster who is plainly identified, who apparently is knowledgeable, and has a strong ability to communicate in writing. That poster, particularly in a field of expertise, can create, wittingly or unwittingly, an impression that a falsehood is the truth. Our friend Roger Baylor has a particular expertise in the processes, textures, and flavors of boutique and imported beers. If he were to submit a posting claiming that porter ales are sweet and fruity, with a light texture and a pleasing aftertaste, I would be unarmed to dispute him. But, if I later tasted a porter and found it to be bitter and heavy, my estimation of Roger's credibility would suffer.

Let's imagine just one more example. Let's say an elected official panders to an unknown constituency with sweet words demanding the effective use of public monies while at the same time voting to squander those same funds in pursuit of self-serving electoral theatrics. Let's assume a man who claims to be a man of the people but who opposes public works designed to benefit the people as a whole to protect his cronies and political supporters.

Will the words or the deeds be your yardstick for measuring credibility? For a time, words will win out. People, particularly those who vote, want to believe the words they hear. But in the end, it is the deeds that are the measure of a man. Credibility in the eyes of others is a precious commodity. It can be gained with bluster, with eloquence, and even with violence. But it is the deeds that ultimately determine credibility.

It's that easy folks. Credibility can be gained over time, but lost in an instant. So when you're posting on the blogs, keep that in mind. If you want to be taken seriously, get your facts straight. When you are wrong, admit it. When you make a mistake, correct it. And if you want to have credibility in the blogosphere, you have to earn it.

Conflating truth with fiction is easy, particularly when you want to believe it or when it suits your purpose. Don't believe me? Then consider this.

In yesterday's post, I conflated truth with fiction. Not one reader caught my mistake. The narrative seemed credible; the blogger (me) seemed to know what he was talking about; a few terms of art were scattered among another few clever turns of phrase, obfuscating the error in a dazzle of obscurantism.

But it served my purpose. Although the error was harmless, it could well have damaged my credibility if it weren't designed to teach this lesson.

What's the error?

Robert Penn Warren did write All the King's Men. He was the poet laureate of Tennessee (although perhaps not at the time he wrote it). It was published in 1946. It did tell the story of the rise and fall of Willie Stark. The harmless error? Every Man a King is a real song. The fictional Willie Stark never used it in his climb to power. All the King's Men is a roman a clef that mirrors the rise and fall of Louisiana's Huey Long, who did, indeed, use the song as a theme in his myriad campaigns.

See how easy it is. Imagine how much easier it would be if posted anonymously but authoritatively. Imagine how much easier it would be to fool the people if your platform weren't a blog, but the office of New Albany City Council Member.

So when you read something on a blog, by its owner or by a correspondent, consider the source, measure its credibility, but never cede your thinking to someone else. If something sounds incredible, check it out. Ask questions. Challenge it.

And when you hear incredible things coming from a member of the City Council, I would counsel you to do the same.

Here endeth the sermon. Next time, we'll try for something lighter and frothier; it's just that today I'm fed up to my eyeballs with people trying to insult my intelligence thinking I'll believe anything they say without checking it out.

Have a great sunny day.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Every Man a King!

Fellow blogster NA Confidential will certainly have more to say, and soon, but for now is digesting the provocative happenings at last evening's New Albany City Council meeting. I assure you, for a commentator, that one meeting provided enough food for thought to generate hours of thoughtful discourse.

Here is my response to Roger's brief posting, which ended with this: That's where New Albany's "revolution from nothing" will have to begin.

Perhaps not from nothing, NA Confidential. While there are those who would attempt to strangle the baby in the crib, I believe there exists in this city a vast hope and belief that New Albany should be a better place to work and live.

The question to be put is this: Can it be? My soundings are that a tremendous number of citizens are ready and willing to support leaders who will lead, who don't make excuses, who aren't afraid to speak the hard truths about what needs to be done, and who have the smarts to accomplish it, either through jawboning, deal-making, or just plain competence.

We saw a hint of that last evening from the chief executive of the city. Could he be the one to articulate a new vision for this city? After the annus horribilis that was 2004?

The most distressing part of the evening for me was the casual dismissal of the value of education as a component of proper government and service delivery. One CM was heard to say all an education offered was the ability to read books. An unfortunate turn of phrase if ever I heard one.

In fact, my mind wandered to one of the great books of the 20th Century. In 1946, Tennessee's poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren, chronicled the political career of a scoundrel so eloquently that it has ever been, for me, the epitome of modern fiction.

While RPW may not have been the most enlightened of beings, his All the King's Men should be required reading for any politician facing temptation.

Read the book...even watch the movie and see Broderick Crawford's winning turn as Willie Stark, whose evolution from "man of the people" to shady dealer is a sight to behold.

Stark rose to popular acclaim with the help of his campaign theme song, Every Man a King, and as I listened to the bravura performance by Mr. Dan Coffey, the tune whirled through my mind with each faux-populist utterance from that worthy.

Here's my question. How many of you, how many of the council, would agree with the statement made to me by a "concerned taxpayer" just this week, to wit: I'd be perfectly content for New Albany to remain a third-rate city."

A victory, for this year

We in the Volunteer Hoosier community want to commend Greg Gapsis, ace reporter for The Evening News, who has devoted great energy to explaining the intricacies of pending telecommunications legislation in this year's Indiana General Assembly. Our correspondent, bluegill (Jeffrey M. Gillenwater) deserves all credit for bringing a lot of this to our attention.

You will remember that House Bill 1148 would have hamstrung local governments in creating broadband Internet service where the telcos would not provide it. For this year, anyway, that bill is dead. We're not aware of any similar bill before the Senate and Sen. Connie Sipes confirms that.

With permission, here is Gapsis's report from today's editions of The Evening News:

Broadband bill killed
By Greg Gapsis
Staff Writer

The Evening News

A bill to impede the build out of local Internet access systems died in the House Local Government committee on Wednesday.

H.B. 1148, promoted by major telecommunications companies, would have raised barriers to local governments sponsoring or even assisting new ventures to bring modern communication infrastructure to their citizens.

The bill quickly gained opposition from a elected officials because of its chilling effect on economic development, public safety and health issues.

“It’s wonderful news,” said Charlestown Mayor Mike Hall.

“The bill would definitely have had a negative effects on us. It would have been fine if the big companies were willing to provide us with service. But when they chose not to, it seemed unfair that they were trying to handcuff us from trying to help ourselves.”

Charlestown started exploring a community wide Internet access system more than a year ago, saying it was essential to help retain current businesses and attract new ones.

When a request for proposals was issued, the city actively sought the involvement of companies like SBC Communications Indiana and Cinergy Communications, Inc., according to Hall.

“We went public and asked for proposals but they wouldn’t’ submit,” Hall said. “Their response was that our market was too small and it wouldn’t be profitable enough for them.”

The city ended up negotiating with a group to build and operate a wireless Internet access system using high fidelity radio transmissions from a series of towers. Such WiFi systems are seen as a cutting-edge, cost effective way to extend access without the expense of stringing wire or burying fiber optic cable.

While the proposal failed because of concerns about the city’s risk in financing the venture, the city council said it was still exploring a way to build a community system and passed a unanimous resolution opposing H.B. 1148.

“The bill would have ended up directing where economic development took place in the state,” Hall said. “It would have limited our ability to compete and shifted focus to only those areas the major telecoms were willing to service.”

Similar sentiments statewide allowed the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns to build a broad coalition in opposition to the legislation. IACT, a coalition of 468 cities and towns, joined with the Indiana Economic Development Association, the Indiana Municipal Electric Association and the Indiana Municipal Power Agency in testifying against the bill.

“Mayors across the state have begged service providers for broadband for years, only to be told that the market is not there,” said Andrea Johnson, an IACT spokeswoman in a statement. “IACT understands that businesses are in business to make money and does not fault them for that. Local government, however, is in the business of helping citizens achieve a high quality of life and providing infrastructure that meets the demands to support that quality of life.”

Numerous studies and many southern Indiana economic development organizations, including the Chamber of Commerce, Southern 7 Workforce Investment Board and Southern Indiana Economic Development Council, have identified broadband connections to the world wide web as essential for economic development.

This point was emphasized by IACT in its testimony before the house committee chaired by Rep. Phil Hinkle (R-Indianapolis).

“One of the first questions a municipal official is asked when discussing location with a prospective new member of the business community is about technology infrastructure, and broadband service in particular,” said IACT Executive Director Matthew Greller. “We are very pleased that this committee took appropriate action to stop this bill from moving forward.”

Similar sentiments were raised by Scottsburg Mayor Bill Graham when the bill was introduced. “Rural communities have been affected more greatly than urban areas by the downturn of the national economy,” Graham said. “It is a global world today and everyone has to be connected to be a player. It’s important for community development as well as economic development.”

Graham championed a county-wide, municipally-backed WiFi system when major providers said it would not be cost-effective to provide services. Scott County piggybacked on its publicly-owned electric utility company to install a dozen antennas at a cost of $390,000 to provide service to the entire county.

The investment helped keep some businesses from relocating, saved public agencies money and permits the county to be more competitive in attracting new ventures.

“The phones companies were charging $1,300 a month for T-1 lines that you could get for $350 a month in Louisville,” Graham said. “Our new system allows businesses to get comparable service for $200 a month and residents can sign up for service for only $30 a month.”

Graham said the venture has been successful since its roll out in the summer of 2004. “Under our business plan we were hoping for 100 customers to sign up in the first year,” Graham said. “Without any advertising, using only word of mouth, we already are pushing 600.”

Other community leaders also opposed the legislation because it would have limited the quality of training to which emergency personnel had access and the quality of service EMS, fire and police would ultimately be able to provide to communities they served.