This post isn’t really for a general audience; it’s for friends and acquaintances who’ve had trouble keeping up with my peregrinations (and who have let me know this in increasing numbers over the last month 🙂 ).

I moved to from San Francisco New York in January 2008. Sort of. What really happened was that I tried to move to New York, but failed, because I’d planned it very stupidly.

Note to kids thinking of trying this at home: Don’t put all your stuff, including your beloved grand piano, into storage, then drive across the country to New York City expecting to be able to buy an apartment quickly, not if you work as a consultant (which makes mortgage lenders nervous), and especially not if it’s immediately after a huge sub-prime mortgage crisis that’s been all over the news (which makes mortgage lenders especially nervous). And if you do try the above, you might find it wise to listen to the friends who tell you that the New York real estate market is not like other markets, and that you should plan on everything taking longer.

Anyway, after a few months of beating my head against the wall in New York (there were some other stupidities along the way, which in the interests of preserving what little dignity I have left I won’t go into here), I finally gave up and decided to move back to Chicago, a city I’d lived in for a long time, where many of my friends live, where the best choir ever is, and where apartments are much cheaper. “I can always do copyright reform work from Chicago,” I told myself, “I mean, it’s really all online anyway.”

So in April I went back to Chicago. I had a wonderful month there, catching up with family and friends, but… I started realizing from pretty soon after I got there that I wasn’t going to stay. I won’t go into all the reasons why — this post is about logistics, not deep philosophical questions about the importance of place[1]. Suffice it to say that I missed the East Coast (where I’d grown up), and, despite having been thoroughly defeated by New York once, I still more felt at home there than anywhere else.

In May I went back to New York City, armed with a more realistic set of expectations and a much greater willingness to compromise in the apartment department. This time things went better: I found a place pretty quickly, and am now in contract to buy it. It’s in upper Manhattan, utterly lovely, in a musician-friendly building in a quiet neighborhood, gets lots of sunlight because it’s south-facing, and I hope someday to cook you dinner there.

If, that is, I ever actually close on the place. The process of buying a co-op apartment turns out to be like having a whole second job, except you pay them instead of them paying you. The reason it’s so hard is that in addition to the seller, the buyer, and the mortgage lender, and all their lawyers, there’s one more party involved: the co-op board, which has to approve any new residents, and wants everything to be thoroughly documented.

So take yesterday, for example. I got a call from the co-op board’s representative, saying that they needed some more information from me. It turned out to be the sort of thing that requires a signature, and involved some hand-corrections to existing pages in the application (an application that was almost an inch thick when I delivered it, if you count the supporting documentation like bank statements, tax forms, etc — I’m not kidding, I measured it). So I dropped what I was doing and went over to their offices and made the corrections, signed, etc.

Something like this happens several times a week. If it’s not the co-op board, it’s the mortgage lender. I’m expecting it to continue for a while. We still don’t have a firm closing date, but we should have one soon. In the meantime, I do whatever they ask as quickly as I can, because after all I want that closing to happen yesterday. Until then, I’m living in a series of rented rooms in Brooklyn (I have to rent them for short periods of time because I never know what the end date will be, and I don’t want to pay for longer than I need).

So that’s everything: I’m in New York; I don’t have an apartment; I hope to have one soon; in the meantime I live a kind of transient life I haven’t lived for years. I wouldn’t say it’s liberating, exactly, but it is oddly relaxing to not have most of my stuff around. Except for the piano — that I miss like a drug addict misses, uh, drug. Whatever. You know what I mean. I hope it’ll be in its new home soon!


[1]: 2012-01-12 update: This sentiment turned out to be premature; I’m back in Chicago now.

If you’re looking for office space in New York City — as an individual or a company — consider joining forces with New Work City:

New Work City

Tony Bacigalupo, who is putting together NWC, recently wrote this:

We’re looking for an anchor tenant to join forces with. Ideally, this anchor tenant would be a growing company in an existing space that’s looking expand — and who would be interested in being part of a creative work community. If you know someone who you think would be interested, send them our way!

For what it’s worth, I’ve committed to signing up as an anchor tenant myself (assuming reasonable rent and location, but it looks like those conditions will be met). If enough people do the same, then this can actually happen.

Join us!

There’s a particularly insidious kind of comment spam nowadays, one that cannot be defeated by automated measures such as captcha. I’ve been noticing more and more of it on QuestionCopyright.org, and I’m sure other web site admins are experiencing the same wave.

I don’t know if this phenomenon has a name yet; perhaps you can tell me.

Basically, it’s comment spam written by people — real human beings, not robots — who are paid to surf the web. They scan each article as quickly as they can and then leave a “drive-by” comment. The comment is usually on-topic, more or less, but of extremely low quality, and contains a commercial link back to whoever’s paying that person to surf. This is now a business model: there are intermediaries who hook up people willing to leave links for money with companies looking to boost their search engine rankings. The intermediary charges a flat rate per comment (US $0.20 seems to be the going rate), keeping a percentage and paying the rest to the surfer. The customers buy in bulk, of course, and the surfers are paid in bulk; the intermediary’s business model is based on economies of scale and smoothing things out.

Such comments now comprise the vast majority of new comments on QuestionCopyright.org. That is, we still get genuine comments at the same rate we did before — in fact, that rate may even be slowly increasing — but it’s dwarfed by the number of paid-link spams we’re getting now. It’s a total deluge. To a first approximation, all our new comments are spams, and then if you look closely there are a few hams (good comments) scattered randomly in the flood.

No Turing Test can possibly solve this, because actual humans are involved. Making your captcha puzzles harder won’t help: all it does is drive up the price-per-comment a bit for the buyers, while also making it harder for legitimate commenters to leave their remarks. The only way to detect such comments is to have human editors reading and making judgements.

This has profound implications for the user interfaces by which editors filter out spam. But before we get to that, let me show you how insidious the problem is. Here are some examples, all taken recently from the same article on QuestionCopyright.org. (Note that this is just the tip of the iceberg — the same thing is happening on all the articles on the site.)

This article is very
Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 2008-06-19 12:53.

This article is very useful.I read it carefully and I agree with the main idea of the author.The opportunities that the internet offers to make our life and work simpler should be taken advantage of. It is absolutely necessary in the field of copyright.

Internet marketing

That one was a pretty easy call. Even the link text (“Internet marketing”) practically screams spam.

But how about this next one?

Extremely Informative
Submitted by Sedona on Mon, 2008-06-09 11:32

Thank you for this extremely informative article. I agree I don’t feel its about creativity but the publishing entities sustaining a mood of “go cautiously” and keep a big legal war chest.

Thank you,
Sedona

A little harder to tell, that time. The comment doesn’t exactly say anything, but it’s not immediately clear that it’s nonsense — you have to read it somewhat carefully to figure that out. Sedona is actually a registered user of the site (note that her name is highlighted in the header line), and the link text at the bottom is just the name “Sedona” too. But the link points to www.sedona-spiritual-vacations.com.

It turned out that this comment was also pretty clearly spam: “Sedona” left similar comments elsewhere on the site, always with the same commercial link at the bottom. None of her comments said anything much, let alone responded in a meaningful way to the content of the article.

But it gets worse. Some link spam comments actually say something. The paid surfer reads the article, apparently enjoys it and has some kind of non-trivial thought about it, and leaves a halfway decent (or sometimes even better than that) comment — but still with a paid link. Like this:

Patent and CopyRight
Submitted by Anonymous on Thu, 2008-05-22 15:41

Apart from the middle man and distributors its probably Lawyers who benefit the most from these **laws**.

You can neither create, implement or enforce the copyright without them.

One only has to look at the case of RIM ( Blackberry ) in Canada who was forced to pay 600 Million to what was in essence a group of 30+ lawyers who pro bono backed a patent that was actually overthrown in court ( but not before RIM was told to pay ).

This is not an isolated example where a claim jumper has been given a ridiculous patent by the patent office ( who frequently revokes them after they are challenged )

My uncle, who is somewhat of an economist, likes to say that lawyers are one of the very few professional groups who do not contribute to the gross national product of a country.

I am not against lawyers, they are a useful bunch. But like many government employees ( which they are not ) when allowed, too many of them actively attempt to overvalue their services within the scope or measurement of a country’s forward economic progress.

Signed, A Poker Lover

Not a great comment, I admit, but not completely pointless either. If there had been no commercial link, nothing else about it would have raised my suspicions. It was followed up to some days later by this one:

Authors & Artists
Submitted by Anonymous on Sun, 2008-06-08 14:14

I agree very much with the previous poster. How many lawsuits are brought up about copyright a year. The millions of dollars which are thrown at law companies around the world to up hold a ‘companies’ intellectual rights is pathetic to say the least.

The only person who truely has a right to claim stack is the writer, producer artist. I qould pay my way to anyone who does work for me. If they provide a service like my electric or water company I pay them. But what do these middle men companies do? They look out for themselve and only themselve. It is time the power was taken away from the big corperations and given back to the people who really deserve to be paid. Those who created it in the first place.

Regards,

David of PC Sport Live

Wow, the link spammers are following up to each other’s posts! Actually, it’s possible that the “David” of the second post is the same person who wrote the first post, even though he (or she?) portrays himself as being a different person. I’ve noticed they do that a lot. You can often tell, from a combination of the writing style and the link destination, that supposedly distinct commenters are really the same person.

The next day, someone followed up to “David”‘s comment:

Copyright laws
Submitted by Anonymous on Mon, 2008-06-09 16:34

Hello Everyone,

Today, I note that RedHat Founder Bob Young also weighed in on the copyright issue :

A new open source software group has added its voice to the opposition against the Conservative government’s ( Canada )impending copyright reform bill. Lulu CEO Bob Young likens the legislation to banning screwdrivers because they could be used by burglars.

……

Young said the proposed bill will cater too heavily to the content industry and not to the engineers and software developers that are going to be most severely impacted by the new laws. The proposed anti-circumvention legislation, he said, is similar to making the use and ownership of screw-drivers and pliers illegal because they can be used to commit crimes such as burglary.

Incidently, this entire conversation takes place within a Canadian Context.

Young further says,

“The copyright philosophy behind the U.S. DMCA is that it’s illegal to do what software engineers do every day of the week and what they’ll have to continue to do in order to build better technology for all companies,” Bob Young, spokesperson for the Canadian Software Innovation Alliance (CSIA) and a former founder and CEO at Red Hat Inc., said. “The biggest concern is we’re going to have law substitute for good technology. We’re crafting these laws without having anyone from the technology industry engaged in the process.”

The complete article is here itworldCanada.com

An interested internet marketing guy

Hmmm. It’s clumsily written, and consists mostly of quotes from someone else, but there’s real content there: that quote about the screwdriver is terrific. I have to admit that the comment actually contributes something to the site. I think it probably lies somewhere between typical paid link spam and a real comment: it might be from a person who is actually associated in some permanent way with the business being linked to, and who just makes a habit of always signing his posts with a link back to his business. Or it might be the usual kind of paid link spam. I frankly can’t tell.

I could go on and on; the above is a tiny fraction of what we’ve been getting on the site. There are obvious spams, semi-spams, maybe-not-spams, clearly-not-spams, and every gradation in between. I sometimes have to exercise real judgement when doing comment moderation; it’s not always clear what’s spam and what’s not.

In fact, it is no longer possible to divide comments into “spam” and “not spam” in an unambiguous, binary way. A given comment can now fall into both categories. Paid-link spammers are humans, and may have genuine reactions to the articles they read, even though most of the time they’re reading primarily to get just enough of a sense of the topic to be able to write a drive-by comment. Editors will just have to deal with comments on a case-by-case basis. It may be possible to apply some automatable heuristics, but they will always be imperfect, because the problem of categorization has become arbitrarily complex.

This phenomenon has implications for both site editors and software designers. For the former:

  • Site editors need to get it through their heads that they’re editors. That is, they’re responsible for quality of the site, and that includes the comments. Whether a comment has spam-like commercial links in it or not is not the question. The real question is, Does that comment contribute anything useful to the site? It’s true that there is a strong correlation between commercial links and poor quality, but it’s the poor quality that’s the problem. If a comment is good but has commercial links, you don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater — just replace the links with some text like “[commercial link deleted]”. (It’s important to leave some visible sign that the comment has been edited, otherwise the commenter is effectively being misquoted by your site.)

  • Site editors need to educate their readers about the situation. Most readers don’t run web sites with open comment forums, and most also have no idea that this whole paid-link comment spam problem even exists (partly because the editors have been protecting them from it). When you accidentally delete one of their comments, or they see comments disappearing, they’ll wonder why; you should have an explanation at the ready, and should refer to it often. (I’m about to update QuestionCopyright.org’s editorial policy to reflect this, and then will link more prominently to that policy from various places on the site.)

The implications for software designers (particularly of content-management systems such as Drupal, which is what we’re running on QuestionCopyright.org) are equally important:

  • Stop thinking about spam-filtering as the problem of filtering a few spams out of the stream of hams. It’s the other way around: the spams are the stream, and the problem is to pick out the rare hams. Please design interfaces accordingly!

    If it takes two clicks plus a request/response loop with the server just to see the full body of a new comment, and then another click-plus-loop to mark it as spam or ham, and then another click to confirm, then site editors will waste the majority of their time clicking and waiting. If I have to visit comments by visiting the articles to which they are attached, then the interface is mis-tuned: the operative unit should the comment, not the article. Since most new comments are obviously spam, I don’t need to see the original article to mark them as such. They are the common case, and the interface should be optimized toward them.

    The ideal interface would present the editor with a single page showing all as-yet-unmoderated comments, with their full texts (or arrange them in groups of 20, or whatever, if that would make the page too long). They would all be presumed spam, and the editor’s job would simply be to glide down them marking the hams. Each comment would have a link allowing the editor to see the original article, in case that context is necessary (though it rarely is). Each comment should have a flag next to it indicating whether or not there are any links in the comment at all — if a comment has no links, it is much less likely to be paid spam, and therefore much more likely to be high quality. This flag would enable the editor to set her expectations, which is a great help when faced with hundreds of comments.

  • Don’t make the parent->child threading relationship between comments fatal. That is, if comment B is a reply to comment A, but A is later classified as spam and deleted, B should not be deleted along with it. Users often click “reply” just as a way of making a new comment; the fact that the comment they’re replying to is spam has no bearing on the quality of the new comment. B may not be spam, even if A is. (The version of Drupal we’re currently running at QuestionCopyright.org gets this wrong, unfortunately, but newer versions may have fixed it.)

  • Have a setting that allows editors to simply prohibit links. It’s a policy decision that each site must make on its own (some links are useful, as we saw in one of the examples above), but the option should be there.

Any other ideas, folks? It’s a whole new world out there…

It’s over.

I don’t mean the Democratic Primary, I mean the general election. The whole thing. Barack Obama is going to walk over John McCain like a piece of gum on the sidewalk.

John McCain

Why?

Watching John McCain speak tonight, I was reminded of a principle my Go teachers often mentioned: don’t make a move to which your opponent’s best response would be a move he wanted to make anyway. I often did that: I’d put a stone down on the board, and my opponent’s response would simultaneously counter what I had done and serve some other purpose useful to my opponent. Those opponents who were trying to teach me would ask “Why did you make me stronger? I wanted to go there anyway.”

John McCain is making this mistake with Barack Obama. He’s handing Obama exactly the debating points Obama wants. He accuses Obama of thinking that government can provide solutions, but people remember Katrina, and Obama wants a chance to say specifically what he thinks government can do. He accuses Obama of being willing to engage in diplomacy with rogue regimes, but people remember Iraq, and Obama has a whole foreign policy debate he’d just love to get into with John McCain. He accuses Obama of turning to the past for answers; but people look back fondly on the past, because the present is so tarnished. Obama is only too happy to remind people how much better this country used to be run.

When you get right down to it, Obama just understands how this game is played, and McCain apparently does not. Yes, it helps that Obama is smarter, more charismatic, and genuinely has better policies. (That golden baritone voice and his so-ready-for-this wife Jacqueline Michelle don’t hurt either.) But it also helps that John McCain doesn’t seem to realize how easy it is going to be for Obama to turn McCain’s talking points into a real debate, and win it.

Barack Obama

Of course, due to the electoral college mess, it’s hard to predict how close things will be in the fall. But something would have to go seriously wrong for Obama not to pull this one off by a wide margin in the popular vote. John McCain is going to give Obama opportunity after opportunity to show how different he really is, and it’s only going to persuade more people to vote for Obama.

If I were running John McCain’s campaign, I’d start reading some Go books.

My favorite political blog, TalkingPointsMemo, is usually insightful on policy, and even more so on politics. But what really distinguishes it from the competition is the quality of its writing, even in short, ephemeral posts. For example, this is from an item posted today:

“Many of our foreign policy thinkers seem to be developing the kind of character damage suffered by children who can buy the best toy every time their parents go to the mall — the inability to distinguish between necessities, simple wants and the mere desire for kicks which is born of pervasive moral boredom.”

Read the whole post if you have time — it’s excellent, especially given its brevity.

I was never a member of the Boy Scouts myself, so my understanding of what they’re about is limited to what’s seeped in from popular culture, but this looks like a winning idea:

Friday May 9, 2008

The Boy Scouts have joined the Open Source Community.

The Boy Scouts of America National Council in Irving, TX has announced the release of their Open Source Initiative. The OSI Project represents a significant commitment by the Boy Scouts of America to the Open Source Community.

This project represents a “complete embrace of Open Source by the Boy Scouts”, says Greg Edwards, OSI Project Manager. Through the OSS Website (http://opensource.scouting.org) the Boy Scouts are not only committed to becoming users of Open Source Software, but teachers, producers, and advocates as well.

(See Greg Edwards’ open letter for more.)

If this means actual scouts are going to be encouraged to get involved in open source projects — say, it will be considered an official scouting activity that you can (I guess) earn merit badges for — then it seems like a great chance for a lot of kids to experience the open source process.

(Er, I guess that should say “boys”, not “kids”. Why aren’t the Girl Scouts doing the same thing? Why weren’t they doing it first, actually?)

Of course, only a small percentage of scouts will flourish in open source, in the sense of having the temperament and discipline to make useful contributions to the projects they participate in. But that’s okay: that ratio is the norm in open source projects. There’s no reason to expect more or less from Boy Scouts. What’s more important is that all the scouts who participate will be exposed to the cultural norms of the open source community: sharing, respectful technical discussions, taking the time to express oneself clearly in writing, fixing things instead of complaining that they’re broken, etc. For every Boy Scout who gets involved in open source, or who hears his friends talking about their projects, that’s one more person who understands what open source is all about. (I’m using “open source” synonymously with “free software” here.)

I’ll close with this beautiful story from Jim Blandy:

Back in 1993, I was working for the Free Software Foundation, and we were beta-testing version 19 of GNU Emacs. We’d make a beta release every week or so, and people would try it out and send us bug reports. There was this one guy whom none of us had met in person but who did great work: his bug reports were always clear and led us straight to the problem, and when he provided a fix himself, it was almost always right. He was top-notch.

Now, before the FSF can use code written by someone else, we have them do some legal paperwork to assign their copyright interest to that code to the FSF. Just taking code from complete strangers and dropping it in is a recipe for legal disaster.

So I emailed the guy the forms, saying, “Here’s some paperwork we need, here’s what it means, you sign this one, have your employer sign that one, and then we can start putting in your fixes. Thanks very much.”

He sent me back a message saying, “I don’t have an employer.”

So I said, “Okay, that’s fine, just have your university sign it and send it back.”

After a bit, he wrote me back again, and said, “Well, actually… I’m thirteen years old and I live with my parents.”

That is: on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a Boy Scout.

Yo, San Franciscans, Bay Areans, listen up: Will Franken is coming back to town!

He’s playing at The Purple Onion on Friday, April 4th and Saturday, April 5th — two shows each night, at 8pm and then again at 10pm. The Purple Onion is at 140 Columbus Avenue.

In case you haven’t read my previous exudation on the topic of Winston Hussein Frankenbama, let me just say: you want to see this show.

Winston Hussein Frankenbama

Tickets are $20 at the door, or $15 if purchased in advance here. Either way it’s a bargain. Go, and bring all your friends.

By not covering crucial details of the Michigan/Florida delegate question, many media outlets have been doing Hillary Clinton a favor.

Here’s an article from the New York Times, for example — Patrick Healy’s “From Clinton, New Pressure For a Revote” in the 20 March 2008 issue:

With plans for new primaries in Florida and Michigan in limbo, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton challenged Senator Barack Obama on Wednesday to accept at least a new contest in Michigan, arguing that he should match his “words with action” because a civil rights principle was at stake.

“It is a bedrock American principle that we are all equal in the voting booth,” said Mrs. Clinton, of New York. “It has been a long struggle to get to the point where barriers have been knocked down and doors opened.”

Before Mrs. Clinton spoke, the Obama campaign issued a memorandum from one of its campaign lawyers, Robert F. Bauer, who raised several questions about a Michigan do-over. “No one disputes that the election will have to be hurriedly prepared,” he wrote. “And it is further accepted that it is, in material respects, unprecedented in conception and proposed structure.”

Mrs. Clinton wants the Michigan do-over as a matter of political survival to close the delegate gap with Mr. Obama; she also hopes to finish the primary season with a lead in the popular vote. The Obama campaign has resisted and argued that Mrs. Clinton is trying to change Democratic Party rules to save her candidacy.

Unfortunately, the New York Times left out the most persuasive arguments from Bauer’s letter. If you just saw the above quotes, you might think the the problems are merely easily-solved implementation details: okay, the revote would be “hurriedly prepared” and “unprecedented in conception and proposed structure”, but surely those are not showstoppers.

Well, I don’t know why Bauer chose to lead off with his weakest arguments, but later in the memo he raises a very serious problem, one we have yet to hear the Hillary Clinton campaign address at all as far as I know. The following excerpt from Bauer’s memo is a bit long and is written in semi-legalese, but it is worth reading all the way through, especially if you’ve been tempted by Hillary Clinton’s rhetoric about voters’ rights:

Although Michigan has always run open elections, which allow voters to vote in whatever primary they prefer, voters who participated in the Republican primary in January could not vote in the June election under the proposed law. This class of voters includes Democrats and Independents who chose not to vote in the invalid Democratic primary at the time because the majority of active candidates did not appear on the ballot and the results would not be accepted under party rules.

This provision raises a significant constitutional question and, along with it, the prospect for litigation that would undermine the perceived legitimacy of the election and bring preparations to a standstill under circumstances in which such delay is effectively fatal. The claim here could also be presented to the party, under party rules, with a similar effect of putting the election and its results in serious question.

The burden on voters here is one of complete disqualification–they cannot participate in the Democratic primary in June if they voted in the January Republican primary. Their claim of a violation of their rights would rest on the fact that that the state “changed the rules in the middle of the game.” These voters’ choice was entirely reasonable in the circumstances: there was no valid Democratic primary available to them at the time, and they could not know that, when their choice was made, that they were disqualifying themselves from participating in a re-run Democratic primary this year that they could know would be held.

Moreover, the state will have difficulty justifying this disenfranchisement by reference to any legitimate state interest. Michigan cannot argue that it wants to limit the June primary to those who are genuinely Democrats, because it has always run fully open primaries. Voters, in other words, have a state-conferred right to vote in the Democratic party no matter what their affiliation. The primaries in January were fully open; and the decision to close them in June will not easily stand constitutional scrutiny. In any challenge, Michigan will be criticized for proposing a re-run without, in effect, restoring to voters the original choice they had–whether to participate in a meaningful Democratic primary.

In other words, the proposal offers a re-run for the State but not for all the voters. The state will have to assert an interest sufficient to justify this infringement on the voting rights of its citizens. Its challenge will be to show how, when the state is seeking to remedy a problem of its own making–failure in the first instance to observe party rules on timing–it can somehow discriminate against groups of its own citizens. The State is also vulnerable to challenge under the party rules. Since any Republican or independent who did not vote in January in the Republican primary is fully free to participate in the June primary, the effect of the proposal is to enfranchise a class of Republicans while disenfranchising a class of Democrats–the ones who chose to vote in the Republican primary when they correctly understood that the Democratic contest was meaningless. A challenge along these lines would consume time, when time is not available, and it is not clear that the party would or could approve this exclusionary feature even if the participating candidates were to agree to it. The DNC would subject itself to legal action if it proceeds with approval of the plan with these terms included. These voting rights issues constitute a serious vulnerability in the proposed legislation and a threat to its successful enactment and implementation.

Bauer very concretely spells out the damage that can happen when you change the rules in the middle of a voting procedure. The Clinton campaign cannot just wave away his concerns: he’s shown how a revote will actually disenfranchise voters. Suppose I were a Michigan voter and I had skipped the Democratic primary (knowing that it wouldn’t be counted, which all the candidates including Clinton agreed was the case at the time), and gone to vote in the Republican primary instead. Now they decide to have a Democratic party revote after all, but I’ll be disqualified because of my earlier decision, even though I made it assuming good faith on the part of the candidates and the national Party.

I’d be pretty mad, wouldn’t you? And out of the thousands of potential Democratic primary voters in Michigan, some will be mad enough to sue, thus tainting the revote with litigation and (correct) claims of unfairness.

Hillary Clinton is not being quite honest about her positions (first the primaries shouldn’t count, now they should) nor about the problems inherent in any revote. Bravo to the Obama campaign for standing firm.

It’s no secret that the memo has gone out among Republican pundits to start chipping away at Obama. He’s the likely nominee, he’s probably stronger against McCain than Clinton would be, and he’s a dangerously quick study. The time to cut him down to size is now, and they know it.

One of Obama’s strengths has been that people trust him (he’s been pretty careful not to lie). His credibility has held up astonishingly well, given how far into an unusually protracted primary campaign we are. To damage it would be a major accomplishment for the Republicans, and a week ago William Kristol tried to do it in a column in the New York Times. But now Kristol has had to retract the core of his argument — in fact, the only part of the previous week’s column that had any real firepower. Not that you’d guess that from reading his correction:

In last week’s column, I cited a report that Senator Obama had attended services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on July 22, 2007. The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.

Sounds pretty innocent, doesn’t it? A slight schedule mix-up, nothing more. You’d almost think Kristol’s column the previous week had been about the candidate’s punishing travel schedule or something.

Not at all. Look at what he was actually saying in that column:

It certainly could be the case that Obama personally didn’t hear Wright’s 2003 sermon when he proclaimed: “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, not God bless America, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people. … God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human.”

But Ronald Kessler, a journalist who has written about Wright’s ministry, claims that Obama was in fact in the pews at Trinity last July 22. That’s when Wright blamed the “arrogance” of the “United States of White America” for much of the world’s suffering, especially the oppression of blacks. In any case, given the apparent frequency of such statements in Wright’s preaching and their centrality to his worldview, the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain.

The more you learn about him, the more Obama seems to be a conventionally opportunistic politician, impressively smart and disciplined, who has put together a good political career and a terrific presidential campaign. But there’s not much audacity of hope there. There’s the calculation of ambition, and the construction of artifice, mixed in with a dash of deceit — all covered over with the great conceit that this campaign, and this candidate, are different.

It’s perfectly clear that the real purpose of this column was to show up Barack Obama as a liar: he said he wasn’t in the church when Wright said that, but really he was, and therefore he’s not as honest as he makes himself out to be.

Except Obama was telling the truth: he really wasn’t there. And by the way, as far as I know Obama has never claimed that he was unaware in general that Wright was making these comments. In fact, he talked on several occasions about how he feels about Wright, and about the questionable things Wright said. When Kristol writes “the pretense that over all these years Obama had no idea that Wright was saying such things is hard to sustain”, that’s because there has been no such pretense. The “dash of deceit” Kristol is referring to can only be about Obama’s (true) claim that he never heard Wright say these things from the pulpit. The report that Obama was in the pews that day was intended to be the bombshell in this column; all the rest was window dressing.

Since Obama really was not in the pews, the key point Kristol was trying to make — that Obama is deceitful — collapses. Kristol should acknowledge that frankly in his correction, and apologize rather than just “regret the error”. Something like this:

In last week’s column, I used a report that Senator Obama had attended services at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago on July 22, 2007 (when he said he hadn’t attended) to impugn his credibility and claim he has a “dash of deceit” in his political character. The Obama campaign has provided information showing that Senator Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error and apologize for the conclusion I mistakenly drew.

That kind of correction would mean that people who read just the correction, but not the original column, would still be able to tell what happened, and would recognize the canard the next time they run across it on, say, Fox News or CNN (as I did, while watching viewer’s comments scroll by on one of those channels while on a treadmill at the Harlem YMCA the other day).

As Kristol knows full well, the main damage has already been done anyway: the lie will spread quickly (as it spread to that viewer whose comment I saw) because there are a lot of people who are eager to spread it. The correction will spread slowly and fitfully, because corrections always sound lame even when they fundamentally change the story. Humans are intrinsically biased toward what they hear first, unfortunately.

Kristol wasn’t irresponsible in printing the original assertion; he got it from the journalist Ronald Kessler, and made that clear in his column. But having contributed to the spread of a lie, both intellectual honesty and good manners demand that Kristol should at least do everything in his power to fix the situation. Instead, he did the bare minimum.

I’m not impressed.