Ronald Wilson Reagan, RIP

This is surprisingly hard to write.

I am very much a product of the late 70s and early 80s. I became politically aware under the Carter administration…if for no other reason than the price of oil making Star Wars action figures more expensive, wiping out my meagre savings to collect them, my obsession from age 9-12 or so. My parents were and are Goldwater Republicans, which meant a conservatism that had individual liberty as a core component–and by consequence a fierce anti-communism.

Though he was clearly a decent and well-meaning man, Carter was no communicator, and he miscalculated in allowing his deep-seated Christian humility to be constantly on display. Instead of seeming genuine, he seemed weak, indecisive, and ineffectual in the face of an ever-increasing “Misery Index“. Carter avoided absolutes absolutely; he spoke with reams of statistics, caveats, and conditionals. Though I have great sympathy now, those qualities just don’t appeal to the 10-year-old mind. And they still aren’t a good tool to get your point across to a large and diverse audience.

Then along came Reagan. He is continually noted as a speaker, even though that quality might be less important to history than his other qualities. But if you ever heard him speak, it was that ability to choose just the right phrase without it seeming trite or pretentious that you immediately noticed. He had what I now recognize to be a fairly well-thought-out message that he boiled down to a few simple concepts: government had gotten too big; communism was a threat; and the American people did the right thing when given the chance.

Where Carter lectured, pleaded, and cajoled, Reagan inspired. I’m more politically sophisticated now, obviously, but Reagan is damn near the only politician who has ever inspired me, and I don’t think it’s simply because it’s easier to inspire a sixth-grader than an adult with a couple of degrees. He spoke in uplifting terms, pointing, ironically enough, Lenin-like at an expansive future of unlimited possibilities. It wasn’t that he whitewashed problems; far from it. His speeches spent a great deal of time talking about problems. He just made them seem like obstacles that would be overcome and you would want to work to overcome if you only gave yourself a chance.

I now look back with much more mixed feelings to what the Reagan administration, as opposed to the man himself, did. Moving the debate back to talking about the proper size and role of government, defining international communism as a threat and dealing with it, and cutting tax rates were unqualified goods. The spending and deficits were politically almost unavoidable, but regrettable nonetheless. Allowing more hard-core evangelicals to top spots and betraying his own principles with regard to Iran were unqualified failures.

But go back and read his speeches. Read his inaugural address, or better yet, listen to it. Watch it if you can. Throughout those speeches is a core concept that almost everyone on the Left and Right has lost since the Reagan years: individual liberty is an unalloyed good, a right, and it leads naturally to people achieving their highest potential. No committee of experts in a far-off capital charted the course for the the Web, E-mail, the Open Source movement, or even Web logs years in advance. All those things resulted from individuals having a vision of how to solve a problem and then doing it. Committees, experts, and other hangers-on came later and dealt with these technologies largely in a reactionary way. But only individuals creating, and other individuals adopting led to the Internet we have now.

For a president derided for his “simplicity” and “anti-intellectualism,” Reagan was both well-read and had a probably unconscious appreciation for complexity in the scientific sense: simple ideas with deep, complex, and profound consequences. It was his ability to capture those complexities, distill the essence to a few well-crafted phrases, communicate those ideas to a wide range of people, and then, in governing, have faith in them even when the long-term consequences looked far-off and unlikely, that made Reagan a great and inspiring leader.

At some other point it will be appropriate to consider how those traits contributed to the worst as well as the best of his time on our political landscape, but for now I want to remember the good things about a leader who actually inspired me and got me to think deeply about political ideas, even if they later led me away from my starting position. But it’s that inspiration of individual achievement that made Reagan Reagan. And when I think now about the totality of his influence, particularly remembering the America of 1980 and the America of 1989 and beyond, I can’t help but quote him: “All in all, not bad, not bad at all.”

Good night, Gipper. I do believe “there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”

Todd Won Honorable Mention

Todd had a good night. It was his wife and my friend Becky’s birthday, and it turns out that his piece “It’s What’s on the Inside that Counts I & II” won an Honorable Mention in the aforementioned show.

The good news is, if you want to see the award-winning piece, you didn’t have to be there last night, as the show will remain up for quite a while. To quote:

The exhibit, which runs through July 18th, will feature several special events during the months of June and July.

1st Thursday, July 1st (6:00 – 9:00 PM) The Choreographers Collaboration Project will perform Fun ‘n Games-themed pieces at 7:00 & 8:00 PM in the gallery.

Thursday, July 15th (7:30 PM) Mark your calendars for the Game Night and DRA General Meeting. Non-members are welcome!

Gallery hours are Thursday 7 – 9 PM (First Thursdays 6 – 9 PM) Saturday 10 – 4PM & Sunday noon – 4PM

CSS: A Good Compromise

This is what I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to articulate for some time: “use CSS to the extent it works, but don’t be afraid to use table-minimal design” is really current best practice in Web design. If you have some real need to support several potential devices with one design, then by all means use table-free design: I’m not above doing that myself.

I don’t like that tables work more reliably for major browsers than anything else, but I accept the reality. When Longhorn ships it will be time to re-evaluate. Or if Safari and Firefox combined gain more than 50% market share. O, happy dream…

Todd Gardner’s Art in Alexandria Show

My friend Todd Gardner, whose site I built and host, has three of his pieces in an art show in Alexandria, kicking off with a reception tomorrow.

It’s at the Del Ray Artisans building in the Del Ray neighborhood, which I know many of my loyal readers live or work near.

2704 Mt. Vernon Avenue
Alexandria, VA

Friday, June 4, 7-10 PM

So stop by before or after you go see the new Harry Potter flick (I’m just going to avoid the kiddie crowds by seeing that flick a bit late).

Careful Who You Outsource

Looks like the head of the Bank of Ireland got hoist by his own petard. After getting his post, he decided that in-house IT support was too expensive and did onshore outsourcing, which usually means firing everybody and letting a contracting company come in and rehire some of them at lower salaries with fewer benefits, all while charging a premium to manage them all. Supposedly there’s a cost savings in there, but all it suggests to me is that it reveals the inefficiency of the in-house HR management if simply replacing them saves enough to justify the profitability of a whole new management structure.

This, predictably, pissed off the employees, and being European and thus accustomed to such things, had some sort of labor action to protest the move.

Well, it turns out that as the outsourced IT people were looking at the executive’s machine, they found porn among the cached files on his hard drive. They informed their contacts at the Bank, and, unlike an American company, the CEO was forced to resign over the scandal. Here, only a woman who could sue for sexual harassment could bring up such an issue and have a CEO fired, and that would have to be through the courts. But nonetheless, it can get ugly.

So just make sure you’ve, um, covered all your bases, so to speak, when you decide to outsource the guy who reads your e-mail. I, for one, make sure I’m on good terms with my sysadmin wherever I go. A powerful friend, and a deadly foe.

“Aid Makes No Difference to a Country’s Development”

At the aforementioned dinner, Dr. Richard Feachem accepted an award and gave a speech. In it, he summed up the research on international development assistance this way (I’m paraphrasing, as I’m going on memory):

In countries with a suitable policy environment, development has happened whether or not aid was provided. … In countries with a poor policy environment, development hasn’t happened and the presence of aid made no difference.

That’s quite an admission for the director of a (currently) 5 billion USD international assistance fund to make. Basically he’s saying that, by and large, the whole enterprise of international aid hasn’t made any difference.

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I Saw Jack Valenti Tonight

Normally I’m not one to gush about celebrities, nor am I particularly inclined to gush about this particular celebrity, but I find it worth mentioning that I saw Jack Valenti tonight. That’s Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America. What’s odd about it is where I was.

I attended the Washington chapter of the Society for International Development’s annual dinner–mainly to prove to myself and others that, though I choose not to use or wear them, I have social skills and dress clothes I look good in.

So I see this really short old guy standing across the room from me, and I’m sure I’ve seen him before on the talking head circuit–but I couldn’t place him. Small wonder. This bunch, who mainly deal with Third World (er, Developing World for the politically correct) aid, is not the first place I would expect the head of the MPAA to be.

It’s just as well I didn’t place him until he was mentioned, as I would have had to fight my temptation to ask him some sharp questions about how union gaffers and best boys with guaranteed wages are affected by marginal profit losses from piracy; how he squared the losses from Chinese duplication with losses from a few college students who download three-inch-wide copies of popular movies; how he rationalized “copy protection” methods that do not prevent copying but prevent you from playing legal copies on unapproved operating systems; and how he squared all of this with his defense of taking tobacco money to positively portray smoking in movies while simultaneously insisting that other people’s First Amendment rights should not extend to fair use of the same material. Oh, and I’d love to know when the Enron-esque accounting of movies leaves movie studios drowning in money while insisting that films like Terminator 2 lose money or make a negligible profit–at least to the IRS–will end.

Somebody hasn’t paid their fair share. Jack Valenti, I’m looking in your direction.

And to anyone who doubts that I might not have asked some or all of these questions–I once confronted a former professor at one of my best friend’s wedding about the fact that he blew off a recommendation he was supposed to write for me that prevented my application to a grad school being completed. I was tactful, but I also didn’t let him get away with it, either.

Ways CSS Is Poorly Designed, part 1

Why can’t I put multiple background images on a single div?

div#myNiftyDiv
{
background: url(/images/topleft.gif) no-repeat top left;
background: url(/images/topright.gif) no-repeat top right;
background: url(/images/bottomleft.gif) no-repeat bottom left;
background: url(/images/bottomright.gif) no-repeat bottom right;
}

The above should give me a nice rounded corner for a colored box, and degrade nicely for agents that don’t support it. I could do more with a z-index property:

div#myNiftierDiv
{
background: url(/images/topgradient.gif) repeat-x top left z-index(1);
background: url(/images/repeatingpattern.gif) repeat-y z-index(0);
}

That would give me a nice gradient on top, possibly an alpha-blended png, and a repeating pattern down the body.

You can do these things currently in CSS, but you either have to place non-informational images in the div or use lots of non-semantic divs, or hard-code the width and height and sometimes position of the div while serving up a huge image, a la CSSZenGarden.

So really, who in 1999 when CSS 2 was on its way didn’t just look at the way tables were being used and think to themselves, “Hey, let’s make sure we can do all of this with our nifty new structure”? It’s not like I started encountering curved designs two years ago.