What You Should Think About the Internet

November 25, 2007

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.”

–Andy Rooney

Depending on your perspective, my experience with the Internet either makes me a grizzled oldtimer or a young upstart. When I completed my first professional Web design job, the total number of Internet hosts was less than 40,00 (I seem to recall watching the original Virtual Tourist* clear 10,000 sites just after registering my current employer there.) Erudite scholars dominated online discussions, and .com was not even in the top three most popular generic top-level domains. On the other hand, I first accessed the Internet on a dial-up bulletin board during the late 80s, and I did not so much as monitor an e-mail account until 1994.

I offer up this information to clarify a distinction increasingly lost on users. The Internet evolved out of computer networks conceived in the 50s, planned in the 60s, and actually connected from late 1969 onward. For many years these networks remained dominated by the academics and military personnel for whom they were envisioned. Long before computers were remotely “user friendly,” key Pentagon personnel understood that research, development, and planning related to national security would be enhanced by a communications network that would let experts share data without ever converting that data into any sort of physical document.

For some reason, right through the 1980s, few organizations saw the potential for this same sort of data sharing to help with activities that were not chiefly scientific, intellectual, or logistical. Services resembling e-mail were becoming available from various vendors, and the Internet itself provided an infrastructure for much of that traffic. Yet it would take major advances in graphical user interfaces, both in terms of computer operations and Internet usage, before the ‘net would go mainstream.

In rapid succession, key elements fell into place. Apple’s Macintosh computer line brought the mouse-driven desktop to a much larger number of users. In its own much less elegant way, Microsoft would make the hordes of IBM-compatible PCs already in circulation accessible to users who were uncomfortable with old command line interfaces. Both the original Macintosh System software and early Windows products also made use of hypertext — an innovation in which words or illustrations might also be tagged so as to function as links to other (presumably related) electronic documents.

By this time the Internet was already a global collaboration. Researchers abroad did not want to be shut out of this American hub of knowledge, and the value of their contributions clearly outweighed any potential security risk. Thus it was that many of Europe’s leading nuclear physicists, working within an organization called CERN, became prominent Internet users. As the 80s gave way to the 90s, an Oxford-educated hacker working with CERN developed a protocol for transmitting hypertext files over the Internet. In implementing this protocol he created the World Wide Web.

My experience with the growth of the Web suggests strong parallels to Las Vegas. A place that was once downright tranquil and serene is now cluttered with flashing lights and eyecatching signs promoting gambling or displays of nudity. Yet the high profile way in which strippers and casinos have emerged on the Web is itself a parallel to the rise of online commerce. In hindsight, it seems silly so many early Web users shared my crestfallen response to the fact that poker and nipples generate greater public interest than epistemology and astrophysics.

The time before that transformation saw much greater restraint and civility online. Spam was practically non-existent. Though ‘net culture was distinctively ivory tower, it was also distinctively respectful of the value provided by an unspoiled public commons. Early spammers had little prospect of reaching the kind of gullible consumers that generate profits for their operations, but they had an excellent chance of being denied access by service providers sensitive to complaints about unsolicited mailings.

The condescension in the phrase “unwashed masses” can be hard to shake for anyone who witnessed the transition from a Web of educated seekers of knowledge to a Web of pretty much everyone inhabiting a modernized society. Of course online participation is not 100% even in nations with the good sense to heavily subsidize network infrastructure development. However, at this point the role of deep thinkers in shaping the modern Internet is more apparent in the legacy of pioneering efforts than in the general tone of contemporary content.

As I reviewed potential epigrams for this piece, I noticed one interesting trend. The more heavily involved in politics a particular personality happens to be, the more inclined he or she is to conclude that the Internet is populated predominantly by immature idiotic loudmouths. To some degree this could be an “eye of the beholder” phenomenon. People who use the Internet for shopping and travel planning while relying chiefly on print and broadcast sources of news may have no idea the extent of public political discourse, past and present, online. By contrast, editors and columnists known to thrive on opinionated clash may venture online only to find that the electronic publication of profoundly ignorant remarks is, time and time again, met with a chorus of outright adulation.

Because bulletin board discussions, Wikipedia edits, blogs, et al. typically take place under cover of a pseudonym, prohibitively childish or dogmatic participants in a potential exchange of ideas can only be identified by verbal expression. If it is not human nature, it certainly is in the nature of a great many thinkers (myself included) to be persistent in clash once it is underway. By the time behavior reveals another party to a dispute is disingenuous, incompetent, or otherwise unproductive in discourse, a context has been created in which withdrawal seems like, or may even be interpreted as, some sort of defeat.

Cynics about the value of online discourse since the mainstreaming of the Web certainly have a point. Yet I believe withdrawing from clashes with the hopelessly foolish should not extend so far as to involve withdrawing from the medium entirely. The trick is to seek out the useful and avoid the useless. Freedom of expression and social conformity have interesting, and not entirely positive, roles to play in online discourse. It used to take a little real money and a lot of real effort to maintain a newsletter for some nutty group rallied around beliefs rightly ostracized from mainstream media. Now communications far superior to a humble newsletter are freely available, plus outreach and distribution efforts require much less labor.

The end result is thousands upon thousands of cloisters in which people who have an emotional connection to bizarre beliefs can take satisfaction from presenting crude half-baked analysis while earning wholehearted congratulations in return. More insidious than any partisan noise machine, these little (and sometimes not-so-little) groups create effective sanctuaries for misinformation and ignorance. Suddenly holding the belief that Jesus and dinosaurs were contemporary is transformed from cause for ridicule to cause for celebration. Bunker mentalities intensify the desire to participate vigorously in the chorus of a false narrative.

Yet there are alternatives. Some places online do serve as havens for unbridled exchanges of ideas where the local culture accommodates real challenges to prevailing views. Such resources are few and far between, as there is a fine line between welcoming intelligent dissent and tolerating the inflammatory nonsense of ideologues trapped in “mental brick wall” mode. Then there are the countless sites where real dialog is theoretically possible, but not practical amidst the incessant chatter of participants who have nothing to contribute beyond unfunny one-liners or terse emotional reactions to a subject. Still, if you have something to say, there are plenty of places online to say it. If you manage to say it in an interesting way and you manage to be at least a little bit lucky, you might even see your words carry beyond the deaf ears of living Internet clichés.

*Today it is hard to find so much as a mention of the old Virtual Tourist, but it was something like the Google Earth of its time (that time predating Google entirely.) The project served up simple maps to convey a geographical sense of where every server on the Internet was located in the physical world. Today it seems like a travel commerce site has all but wiped away memories of the original Virtual Tourist, but I’m confident other Webheads of the early to mid 90s will have some memory of it.

What You Should Think About Advertising

November 2, 2007

“Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”

–Will Rogers

Proponents of capitalism, especially in its most extreme forms, seem enamored with economic efficiency. Though love is a positive emotion, it is also no substitute for reason in the conduct of government. After all, love is blind. Thus it is that love of capitalism blinds its most ardent admirers to a host of significant imperfections. Multiple quirks change the daily lives of participants in a capitalist economy for the worse, yet the price of doing business in the private sector is almost never acknowledged.

It is true that capitalism promotes competition between independent economic entities. It is hard to imagine Thomas Edison as a do-nothing layabout who only produced numerous technological breakthroughs out of a craving for personal net worth. Yet it is not entirely ridiculous to suggest that capitalism promotes innovation. In an area where the underlying technology is relatively new, mercenary motives can drive organizations to invest in genuinely useful research and development.

To some degree this is possible in any enterprise. A local pizza parlor may innovate by popularizing an unorthodox yet tasty combination of toppings. An independent gardener may refine pleasing topiary techniques. Is this sort of innovation truly driven by capitalism?

Living by the bottom line typically produces a hugely distorted perception of value. To the gross domestic product, the excellent $12 pizza has no more value than the dull $12 pizza. If one requires quality ingredients and caring employees supported by a living wage while the other can be assembled by unskilled teens content to be paid the legal minimum, corporate players in the pizza business are as likely to put resources behind popularizing the inferior product they are to actually produce the superior product.

This is one of the ways advertising influences the quality of goods and services available in the marketplace. According to theory, capitalism promotes the creation of value by market mechanisms that reward producers of superior products and make it difficult to peddle inferior products. If the world were as simple as a game of Candyland, that theory might hold true. As it happens, reality drives all large scale vendors to engage in marketing — the deliberate distortion of public perceptions as they apply to the desirability of goods and services.

In fairness, sometimes the role of marketing is not to distort. If the most common sort of treatment for sinus congestion among young children is determined to be unhelpful and pose some small risk, the public is served by campaigns to spread information about which rival products rely on other, safe and effective, substances. Yet when is the last time anyone heard of a marketing initiative that was constructed to stop at the limit of providing facts presented in a neutral context? No economic paradigm prevents the dissemination of useful public information. Yet capitalism’s reliance on brand competition motivates the dissemination of public misinformation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the niche of prescription pharmaceutical advertising to the general public. In the United States (among the very few places on Earth where this sort of advertising is permitted,) billions of dollars are spent every year to promote demand for prescription pharmaceuticals. Yet as a society we have long held to the notion that only licensed physicians should make decisions about who ought to be consuming which prescribed substances. That paradigm along with capitalism does justify marketing that would influence professional physicians’ opinions about commercial pharmaceuticals. However, it does nothing to justify marketing that drives up end user demand for substances with significant, and sometimes hazardous, physiological consequences.

Capitalism is particularly quirky as it applies to American health care. Short of actual medical malpractice, there is little incentive to promote quality. The elite may benefit from a small marketplace of top tier specialists, but even the average American millionaire often relies on do-nothing insurance intermediaries more than the personal reputations of physicians. Quantity has become the essence of profitability. As with overbooking airline flights, overcrowding waiting rooms and streamlining patient-doctor interactions is a winning strategy in purely economic terms. The end result is a strong incentive to avoid the kind of contentious discussions in which a patient convinced his or her personal happiness can be found in a particular pill would instead be better served by some other medication or even a prescription-free approach.

The problem becomes even bigger when traced back to the work of the pharmaceutical companies themselves. Developing a remedy for a lifelong condition becomes a bad direction for large corporations driven by their own bottom lines. On the other hand, a treatment that controls symptoms only through lifelong consumption of a particular substances — now that’s the stuff of soaring profits. So it is that the ballyhooed brilliance of “big pharma” in our capitalist society is keenly focused on the trivial variation in heartburn pills or allergy treatments. Truly heal a man and he will take your medicine for a day. Make him feel better without actually healing him and he will take your medicine for a lifetime.

In the end, it boils down to the gulf between what is real value and what is incorporated into conventional measures of GDP. Home schooling, public schooling, and private schooling are all approaches that have produced great successes and great failures in terms of preparing children to understand the adult world. Under the lens of contemporary capitalism, these activities have very different values. Yet those values are not measured by the scholastic abilities of growing students. Instead they are measured by the transfer of currency and the consumption of resources as the process occurs. Is that really the most sensible way to find value in life?

To be fair, some people have done great things specifically because of a mercenary mentality. An ideal economic paradigm applied to the real world should recognize the power of profit to create incentives. Yet it is far from ideal to recognize that and only that while minimizing or even ignoring the tremendous amount of value brought into this world by people acting on other motives. All that which is bought and sold as part of conventional commerce is really a small subset of all that which is worth having or experiencing.

I advocate legal commerce making all drugs available to sane adults with no intent to victimize others. Yet I do not advocate general audience advertising for any substance with potentially harmful side effects. A society that refuses to service a real demand for alcohol will find criminal elements prospering from that refusal. On the other hand, a society that openly promotes demand for alcohol will find increased levels of drunkenness. There is a middle ground, and it does not take much brilliance to see how it might be reached through sensible public policies.

It is downright staggering the size of advertising and marketing efforts as a component in the prices of everything from name brand soda to newly manufactured cars. This non-trivial component of our economy directly adds almost no value to the human experience. It is true that advertising supports media, but it is hardly the case that there would be no demand for information and entertainment in the absence of advertisers willing to bankroll major media organizations.

In the end all this economic activity makes our lives busier and costlier, but is it really a net good? The answer to that depends on how much one sees the benefits of capitalism, indirectly but necessarily supported by marketing, as good. Free markets have their benefits, but they also have their disadvantages. Among the largest of them is the widespread failure to recognize that, in spite of the terminology, “free markets” actually come with an enormous price that is almost never recognized by defenders of the purest strains of ideological capitalism.

What You Should Think About Saddam Hussein

October 3, 2007

So here they come to annihilate what is left of this people and humiliate their Muslim neighbors.”

–Osama bin Laden
(in a 1998 fatwa, predicting the U.S. invasion of Iraq)

The executive branch, backed by overwhelming legislative majorities, rushed this nation into Operation Iraqi Freedom. At the time, American media utterly failed in fulfilling a civic duty to keep the public informed. There was no shortage of content addressing the issue. Alas, there was a near total failure to let that content be shaped by findings of fact. Wild speculation was presented as undisputed truth. Even obvious deceptions were presented as one of two equally valid opinions.

Unprovoked military aggression seemed insane to much of the rest of the world. Nations eager to provide strong support for operations in Afghanistan were openly critical of the effort to invade Iraq. The policy only seemed sane to the American public because of a crucial distortion where traditional journalism collapsed under the weight of “balance” defined by equal attention to hawk rhetoric and dove rhetoric. From shady sources to implausible assertions to outright lies, nothing was defined as out of bounds in some sort of perverse game to generate public support for a White House wet dream.

Now, to be perfectly fair, I have no idea what inspires George W. Bush’s nocturnal emissions. However, I do know that the motivation for war could not have been based on genuine concern about the “mushroom cloud” scenario. This is not a gut impulse or even a close call, but the obvious conclusion to be drawn from plenty of solid givens the politically astute ought to have already known.

Perhaps foremost among these givens was the nature of Saddam Hussein. He was a tyrant. He modeled himself after Joseph Stalin, which is every bit as evil as adopting Adolf Hitler as a role model. There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. Yet did he have to go? Why him and not any of a dozen other tyrants? I certainly cannot defend tyranny, but Iraq should be near the bottom of a 2002 cost-benefit analysis conducted by anyone intent on picking places where liberty might be achieved through forced regime change.

The administration could plead incompetence by conceding something like “irrational exuberance” when it came to this extremely bloody pet project. Yet if there was an earnest desire to spread liberty, and it was merely misdirected by inept planning, then why provide generous financial support to the secret service of Uzbekistan? A totalitarian regime uninhibited in the use of medieval torture techniques, including executions by means of boiling oil, hardly seems like an ideal partner in global democratization efforts. If that alliance, as with kowtowing to Saudi royalty, is required by realpolitik; then how credible was this idealism regarding the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq?

It is true that Saddam Hussein was enamored with weapons of mass destruction. The architects of this war understood that point from historic deployments. A cynic would say that American consultants assisting with chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq war enabled Pentagon analysts to study those weapons without creating the diplomatic backlash that would result if American forces actually conducted the gassings. I would not go that far, but there is no denying that hostility toward Iran caused our nation to support battlefield utilization of chemical weapons that we ought to have harshly condemned.

When the tyrant turned the poison on his own people, it was no longer possible to remain so supportive without losing face on the world stage. It would not be until the invasion of Kuwait that Saddam Hussein would become known as an enemy of the United States. Still, a prior strong working relationship was undermined by the atrocity at Halabja.

Of course, there was much more to this man’s personality than his fascination with horrific weaponry. Any informed and competent analyst intent on honest work product would have noted that, above all else, Saddam Hussein was a survivor. Many public figures in the Middle East have good reason to fear assassins, but only Hussein went to such extraordinary lengths to deal with that situation. He maintained a substantial corp of body doubles, all selected for a natural resemblance, then carved by expert plastic surgeons to better resemble their security-conscious employer. That is just one example of the many elaborate schemes actually implemented to insure his survival in time of trouble.

Hindsight seems to validate so much criticism of the war in Iraq. Yet it was never invalid as foresight. We know now from taxicab tales and the infamous “spider hole” that Saddam Hussein was indeed a self-preservationist of the first order. We knew that going into the war for all manner of reasons, including his willingness to let weapons inspectors travel unfettered throughout Iraq.

Credible allegations held that Western spies infiltrated UN weapons inspection teams. Then there is the affront to sovereignty — how many other nations would let foreigners go anywhere, anytime, unannounced in the name of compliance with UN mandates? Could you imagine the American reaction if somehow the world came to call for unfettered inspections of our WMD stockpiles?

The fact that he complied in principle with the call for a new round of inspections reveals that his pride as a head of state, never mind his quirky fascination with exotic weaponry, took a back seat to personal survival. He may have been a megalomaniac with other psychological disorders, but he was still sane enough to think that “let the inspectors in or we’ll invade” meant that letting the inspectors in would avert an American-led invasion.

Somehow, collectively, our nation failed to exhibit even that level of mental health. From distortions implying a dangerous level of non-compliance to Dick Cheney’s outright lies about a working relationship between the Hussein regime and Al Qaeda, almost no major media outlets had the courage to challenge propaganda points. On a good day, blatant deceptions about the level of menace posed by Iraq were still presented as valid opinions . . . one of “two sides to the story.”

Sometimes there really aren’t two sides to a story. Oceans are mostly water. If someone with a different political mindset than me contends that oceans are mostly vodka, that would not create a legitimate controversy. The right way for news and information media to cover that dispute would be to point out that the vodka theory is demonstrably wrong and the water theory is confirmed by countless credible observations. The fact that a man with a secret underground lair and a cyborg heart told the nation that Saddam Hussein worked with Al Qaeda — that is a great reason to do exposés on Vice Presidential dishonesty. It does nothing to justify pieces lending credence to Dick Cheney’s bizarre assertions.

Yet even today, his body long grown cold, the pro-war machine continues to slander Saddam Hussein. Fred Thompson has taken it upon himself to tug at those strings of misguided fear, still useful for controlling all those gullible patriots who were so certain the administration was accurate in its public assessment of the threat posed by prewar Baghdad.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a very bad man. However, he was a very bad man who was very much in love with the idea of staying in his own skin. His narcissism would never allow WMD development to take precedence over personal security. Anyone anywhere near the Presidency who still doesn’t get that point is far too inept a judge of human character to manage a small business, never mind a modern superpower.

So, what should you think about Saddam Hussein? As an individual his life is a case study in irony. He clearly deserved as harsh a punishment as any human authority is fit to dish out, yet his ultimate fate seems to have been sealed for all the wrong reasons. For so much of his life he was the epitome of villainous, yet in the end he died no differently than would any hero of a conquered nation.

Like other heads of state in power today, some collaborating contentedly with the U.S. government, Saddam Hussein was a monster who tormented his own people ruthlessly. Yet like those other tyrants, he was also in no way a threat to the American people. Perhaps, after stripping away the misinformation about WMD programs and terrorism, there remained some sort of case for pursuing regime change in Iraq.

If so, nothing about that case justified putting Afghanistan on the proverbial back burner or diverting assets away from efforts to neutralize the original Al Qaeda. In a century so far dominated by tragically misguided national priorities, stoking public hatred toward Saddam Hussein proved an effective way to make the American public less rational and thus, temporarily, more supportive of a bold move to take our foreign policy headlong in the direction of historic folly.

What You Should Think About Presidential Debates

October 1, 2007

“Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

–Nikita Krushchev

We Americans have a peculiarly lax notion of what constitutes political debate. It is not at all uncommon in democratic societies for heads of state to make a habit of standing before opposition leaders in public, giving spontaneous answers to the toughest questions a critic of policy could pose. This tends to introduce moments of levity or even embarrassment that some say would be best kept apart from government. On the other hand, it also tends to exclude ideas so indefensible that they certainly should be kept apart from government.

As far from that level of public accountability as we may be, our culture celebrates democratic traditions. Debates as we conduct them still serve some purpose. Among other things, they are vital window dressing to keep low-level political insiders confident that the results of elections are an expression of popular will more than an outcome of power brokers’ whims. In a manner that seems less significant with each passing cycle, Presidential debates also stir up discussion throughout the nation. In times past, fairly specific points of policy might be addressed in detail. Even today, sloganeering and optimistic vagueness still expose substantial audiences to unfamiliar facets of the candidates.

In fact, 2007 has brought us an unusual phenomenon in that both entrenched parties promote many televised debates as part of their own candidate selection processes. Large fields mean that individual candidates only enjoy a few minutes of speaking time at each event, but as a whole they constitute tremendous free air time for the dominant political parties. Well, “free” may be a misnomer, because maintaining media interest involves allowing a few intriguing questions into the mix of softballs and cliches.

In the end though, I suspect more people develop the illusion of understanding than any actual understanding from this process. Take variations in foreign policy practices advocated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. When confronted with a question about the use of nuclear weapons in counterterrorist operations, Sen. Clinton’s answer was profoundly irresponsible, woefully misinformed, and theoretically the cause of historic catastrophe. By contrast, Sen. Obama responded as anyone with a working knowledge of modern munitions should — that conventional weapons are already more than up to to the task of neutralizing any terrorist target that might also be destroyed by a nuclear strike.

To say that “nuclear weapons should never be taken off the table” is either a pointless bluff or a sign of ignorance about the enormous downside of detonating nuclear weapons in the Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, America is a superpower, and we do well to face or even embrace that fact. However, threatening suicidal terrorists with what they would regard as martyrdom, in this case with the especially grand gesture of producing a radioactive wasteland at the site of the event, seems like a flawed approach (to say the least.) Implying that there is a “table” to sit at with terrorists is itself a little awkward, but legitimizing the “do what we say or else we’ll nuke you!” posture is downright absurd.

What happened the day after both candidates expressed their views? Infotainment hacks came to the consensus that Sen. Obama’s inexperience was showing while Sen. Clinton demonstrated the kind of superior judgment she gets from . . . from . . . well, from sleeping with a working President, I suppose. Yet that is a bizarro version of what actually happened. Sen. Clinton, apparently fearful of being branded as unwise by the same media airheads legitimizing this President’s nuclear “bunker buster” initiative, decided that she too had to be cuckoo for nuke-o-puffs.

Most people who would describe themselves as “wonks” would have no trouble following the facts and dismissing that quirk of the process as trivial. Yet still Sen. Obama struggles with perceptions of inexperience and still Sen. Clinton rests on popular exaggerations of her expertise. No doubt both are educated thoughtful people. However, while campaigning to become the President of the United States, one of them refused to rule out a military option that anyone at least moderately versed in real life weapons of mass destruction would not hesitate to dismiss out of hand . . . and the next day she gained ground because of it!

The issue of meeting with heads of government from unfriendly states is less clearcut. Still, the debates wound up promoting public misunderstandings. I disagree with Sen. Clinton’s position that summits with nations like Iran or North Korea should never occur but that the other party makes major concessions simply for the chance to meet with an American President. However, public figures willing to endorse her opinion include plenty of respectable informed experts (unlike the “nuking terrorist camps isn’t a bad idea” set.) This is an area where the nation would benefit from a healthy and deep clash of ideas.

Instead that too wound up being “scored” by vapid media analysts as some sort of win for Sen. Clinton and another indicator of Sen. Obama’s inexperience. There are also plenty of experienced credible experts supporting Sen. Obama’s approach of preserving the option for unconditional summit diplomacy when dealing with troublesome states. If our democracy was truly thriving, then it seems like this would have been the subject of avid discussions from coast to coast. Insofar as it did receive any follow-up discussion, that tended to occur in passing while pundits reviewed the most recent debate as a whole.

Dwelling on the disagreements between the two leading Democratic candidates merely provides a case study in a broader phenomenon. Modern Presidential debates seem to do more to promote the perception of an open popular process than they do to promote the reality of an open popular process. People who are actively averse to informative political media will tune in to these spectacles, perhaps listen to a little analysis as well, and come away with a sense of satisfaction for having performed their civic duty to be well-informed. Admittedly, there are plenty of voters even less informed. Yet that is no justification for celebrating the existing process as if it did justice to the values and aspirations on which this nation was founded.

So, what should you think about Presidential debates? If you like political theater, then by all means you should assemble some snacks and enjoy the show. Even if everyone maintains his or her public persona for the duration, there are bound to be a few moments of interest. Then there are those rare instances where facades crumble and something resembling real human interaction takes place. Given the trend away from the give and take of “real” debate and toward a parade of simple questions with brief answers, neither ideas nor personalities clash much anymore. Yet the potential for an authentic exchange has yet to fall to zero.

One thing you should not think about Presidential debates is that they are an effective alternative to following the issues and the candidates over the long haul. Governing a huge modern nation is about as complex as any activity could be. A quick glimpse at something relevant can add to understanding, but by itself it does not constitute understanding. If you have strong stances of your own on pressing issues, then you have a solid beginning in the hunt for insight into the best use of your vote. If not . . . well, keep checking here, and perhaps you’ll find out a great deal more about what you should think.