October 2008

2008 10 30

Posted by in: U.S. politics

Gosh, it sure it nice to see Obama kicking McCain’s ass.

How’s he doing it? Well, no ass-kicking this serious has a single cause. McCain has run a campaign that seems almost designed to highlight his weaknesses, among them a lack of discipline and coherence. His basic campaign pitches are so stupid—Obama pals around with terrorists, Obama is a socialist—that they really amount to an insult to the intelligence of the voters he’s trying to woo. And, of course, there’s Palin, the gift to the Democrats that keeps on giving. On top of all this, the media smells blood, and has started to call the McCain camp out on some of its stupider stuff recently.

What else? Ah, let’s not forget the money. Obama has lots and lots of money. And he can spend it too, thanks to his decision to break his earlier promise about accepting public money in exchange for spending limits. It’s been widely remarked that this has given Obama a real advantage, though McCain’s camp is running such a crappy campaign that I’m not quite sure how decisive it is. Still, I’ll bet it’s made some difference, and perhaps quite a significant one.

This is an issue I’ve not been inclined to think about much recently. It’s been simply too sweet to watch McCain getting his ass kicked. And looking around at other blogs I see that other people seem to share my view. But seriously, can you imagine how we’d howl if our preferred candidate were being outspent by such a wide margin? After breaking a promise about accepting public funding?

I’m starting to think that fans of Obama should be more troubled by this than we are presently. For one thing, I think everyone now recognizes that the system of public financing is dead. This is bad. It certainly wasn’t a perfect system, but reforming it would surely have been preferable to seeing it die.

It also seems potentially bad from a long-term tactical point of view. It’s not as if the Democrats’ fund raising advantage is likely to remain a deep structural feature of American politics. (Is it? I’m just guessing.) So long as they make any pretense to look out for the less fortunate, the more fortunate are, all other things being equal, going to be giving more to the other side. Serious reform of campaign finances seems to me to be in the long term interests of any left-leaning political party.

And then there’s this, which the right-wingers are talking about a lot recently, and everybody else not so much. I’m not sure what to make of it, or whether there’s something left out of this story that I don’t know about. But it certainly doesn’t look good, and that matters too.

I’m so happy about Obama’s big lead right now that I have to really work to care about this issue. And of course I’m only letting myself care now that he has a wide lead. But I’m guessing that some time in the not-too-distant future, I’ll find that caring about campaign finance issues comes much more naturally.

Howls of outrage (6)

2008 10 25
Wassup 2008

Here’s a short video to watch (unless you are sick to death of US election stuff). It’s a take-off on a series of beer ads from several years ago which had a group of friends going “Wassup?” “Wazzzzzzuuuuuupppp?” to each other on the phone.

Wassup 2008

Keep watching to the end.

Howls of outrage (6)

2008 10 24
Palin: a comparative perspective

Posted by in: U.S. politics

It’s astonishing how quickly the bottom has fallen out of John McCain’s support among prominent Republicans recently. The latest defection is that of Charles Fried, of all people. Fried isn’t just a prominent and respected senior Republican. He was also, until recently, associated with McCain’s campaign as an adviser. He’s since dumped McCain, reportedly citing as his main reason, “the choice of Sarah Palin at a time of deep national crisis.”

OK, so obviously this is a good reason to dump McCain. McCain’s choice of running mate demonstrates a serious lack of judgment. Still, I have to wonder about all these Republicans who suddenly seem to consider it a bad idea to put someone unqualified and not very bright in a position of enormous responsibility and power. There is of course the most obvious comparison, Dan Quayle, who certainly didn’t help Bush Senior, but who also didn’t provoke widespread outrage and a number of high profile defections. But there is also George Bush himself. Is Sarah Palin really that much less qualified than George Bush was in 2000? Is she really that much less intelligent or intellectually curious than him?

Everybody is dumping on poor McCain for having the temerity to propose that someone utterly unqualified might make an acceptable President. But this is exactly the proposal that the Republican party made to the rest of the country when it nominated George Bush a little over eight years ago. You can hardly blame McCain for thinking that he would get away with it. Practically everybody else in the party has.

I can’t really figure the reasons for the difference in reaction to Palin, Quayle and Bush. It seems likely to me that if Palin had been a big hit with the public, or even if the McCain campaign were simply doing better, many of those expressing qualms about Palin now would have made their peace with McCain’s choice. It also seems to me that a whole lot of people have been really looking for a reason to dump McCain, and that the Palin choice just gives them a convenient and socially acceptable way to explain their decision to themselves and others.

And sometimes, too, I wonder how much sexism has to do with the intensity of the reaction to Palin in certain quarters. You see Quayle and Bush routinely mocked for being stupid and uninformed, but you don’t see nearly as often such a widespread consensus in American politics that being stupid and uninformed is some kind of disqualification for higher office. It wouldn’t surprise me if a woman could more easily provoke a sudden fit of concern about minimal standards than a man, however reasonable the concerns are in their own right.

Howls of outrage (23)

2008 10 22
Choi and Sacks on the radio

Posted by in: Music

Yoon and her friend Jacob are hosting a radio show today, from 6pm to 9pm EST. You can listen while the show is in progress on the internets. They’ll be playing some of their own music, and some other stuff.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 10 18
One step campaign finance reform

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I’ve always wondered why this wouldn’t work. Can someone explain to me why it wouldn’t?

The one step in my One Step Campaign Finance Reform plan is simply to create a rule that says that a politician can’t vote on any measure if they have a conflict of interest in it. They have a conflict of interest in a measure if their campaign has received money from a (corporate) party affected by the measure within the last, say, 5 years. In this way, lawmakers would be adhering to the same code of conduct to which judges are already expected to adhere. A judge recuses herself if she is asked to hear a case involving an issue in which she has a financial stake (say, a company in which she owns stock). Why shouldn’t politicians be expected to do the same?

OK, I lied. It’s not one step. You’d have to fiddle a lot with the details. For example, you need to explain “affected.”

And you’d need to set up a much more robust system of public financing to address the sharp drop in political campaign funds available to politicians. (That could and should be done in part simply by forcing broadcasters to give sharply discounted air time to political campaigns. The government regulates this area, and the public in theory owns it. So fuck ‘em if they don’t like it.)

And you would need to worry about independent groups and their semi-formal role in campaigns, especially because diverting money from political campaigns would make this an even more pressing issue. So you’d need a few supplemental rules governing the degree of coordination permitted between independent groups and political campaigns, which would reduce their usefulness to campaigns (which by the nature require tight message control and coordination).

And of course, this proposal also fails to solve the problem of bribes paid in advance. If I’m facing an expensive reelection campaign, I might vote on a measure designed to help a party that I suspect (perhaps after heavy hinting) will reward me later.

Another worry: two politicians working together might be able to get around the restrictions by agreeing to help each other’s donors.

And one more worry, just for safe measure: You’d need to address the fact that political donations sometimes go to organizations like the parties’ national campaigns, which don’t directly vote on issues. This proposal would be a disaster if it funneled a lot of money to, say, the Republican National Committee, which then had discretion over which political campaigns to divert the funds to. The result would be even more supine politicians taking their marching orders from a centralized source of funding whose intermediate role in accepting funds would be to sanitize the funds coming in to the party. So to be effective, this proposal would need to address that in some way. (Perhaps you’d add this rule: Political campaigns themselves can only receive money from “ultimate” donors. They can’t get money from “intermediate” donors, such as the party’s national organizations.)

Still, this one step would accomplish a lot, no? All the ways around the rule seem like a pain in the ass, which would, at worst, introduce a lot more friction and complication into what is currently a simple system of reciprocal back-scratching between political donors and the politicians who love them.

The beauty of this idea is that it entirely avoids the First Amendment issues that have plagued campaign finance reform in the past. Any corporation would be able to give as much money to any politician it wanted. And any politician could accept it. It’s just that that money would then disqualify the politician from benefiting the corporation. Corporations might still donate to political campaigns out of pure idealism, but . . . joking! Anyway, this proposal seems to me Supreme Court proof, which is a point strongly in its favour.

Would this work?

Howls of outrage (10)

2008 10 15
Third debate

Posted by in: Odds and ends

The main thing I took away from this debate was puzzlement. I don’t understand what McCain was even trying to do. There seemed a number of times when McCain’s main priority seemed to be playing to the base, rather than trying to reach beyond it. There was, for example, mocking a woman’s health as a reason to have an abortion. I gather from what he said that one of the stock arguments on the pro-forced birth side of the debate is that “health” has been stretched implausibly far as a justification for permitting women to have abortions. But just think how that must play to people who aren’t part of that echo chamber, regardless of their opinions about abortion. Similarly, what was up with McCain’s comments on Ayers and his mumbling on about nasty t-shirts and veterans with hats or whatever the hell he was saying? It really sounded to me like he was speaking directly to people who are already immersed in the minutiae of NOBAMA hatred. But how does this help him with the rest of the electorate? And although McCain clearly made an effort to smile and shake Obama’s hand, the anger tonight was extraordinary. Again, McCain has to know at this point that the anger does not help him get new votes. I think it cheers up the base, who desperately wants to see him vent a bit, but again, why be playing to them now?

Howls of outrage (33)

2008 10 15
Recently read

Richard Price. Lush Life

A run of the mill murder and an equally run of the mill investigation. The interest here lies in the way the author takes us through it all from start to finish, and from several angles. Nothing too special about this novel, but it’s at least competently written. Price has written for The Wire, a fact that will surprise no one who reads more than a page of two of the book. If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll probably enjoy this book too. If you’re a New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy the depiction of the Lower East Side, where all the action takes place.

Jonathan D. Spence’s God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan

Did you know that in the middle of the 19th Century, a bizarre Christian cult led a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty which succeeded in taking over much of Southern China? Well, good for you, but I certainly didn’t. Hong Xiuquan was an obscure failed scholar with a passing acquaintance with Christianity (via a book of translated excerpts from the Bible) when he had a strange dream introducing him to God himself and informing him that he was Jesus Christ’s younger brother. Hong Xuiquan was evidently persuasive enough about his revelation to draw followers, who were then hardened in their faith by persecution. The resulting civil war, against the backdrop of chaotic 19th century China, led to the deaths of more than 20 million. Think of Waco, but in much of Southern China. Actually, that’s a bit unfair. The Taiping — so they called themselves for a time — Movement deserves credit for being remarkably resourceful and militarily competent, even if they were completely bonkers.

This book takes us through these incidents, which I found so strange and improbable that I turned to Google several times to reassure myself that I wasn’t falling for a well-written but rather implausible alternate history of China. I found it a bit slow at first, but once it gets going it’s marvelous. And the theological bits are absolutely hilarious. The Taiping Movement’s interpretation of Christianity was filtered through questionable and at first partial translations of key texts, prejudices of the Taiping, and Hong Xiuquan’s personal revelations (which were assumed to be more authoritative regarding the word of God than scripture, since, duh, Hong had actually met the guy). This makes for fascinating attempts to rewrite and retranslate the Bible, and for very funny encounters with European Christians, which several times over resulted in a very quick slide from superficial agreement about Christianity to complete mutual incomprehension.

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth. Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind

You really can’t go wrong with a book called Baboon Metaphysics. Cheney and Seyfarth’s book is not, however, about the Baboon’s views of time, space, properties and existence. Rather, the “metaphysics” in the book’s title refers to a jotting in one of Darwin’s notebooks:

Origin of man now proved.—Metaphysics must flourish.—He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

The term “metaphysics” here is used more broadly to refer to the basic ways in which the mind constructs the world, but it emerges that the authors have a special interest in social cognition.

Baboon Metaphysics investigates various aspects of Baboon cognition (especially relating to their social lives), moving back and forth between accounts of the researcher’s own fieldwork in Botswana and a vast literature on experiments performed on Baboons and other primates in captivity. The observations made and distinctions drawn along the way are extremely interesting, but I wasn’t convinced that the authors had managed to fit everything together into a coherent or persuasive framework. Their aim was to tie together the cognitive capacities that suit Baboons to their highly social way of life, and the cognitive preconditions for language use. Baboons are, of course, not all the way to language, but when it comes to communication they manage to get on fairly well in many respects. This is significant, according to the authors, since if complex social life puts a strong selective pressure on cognitive capacities that are a precondition for language use then it may give us clues about the successful human development of language. (At least, that’s what I understood of the argument. It’s entirely possible I’ve completely misunderstood it, and, since I read the book a while ago, misremembering it to boot. What do you want, a refund?) Well, perhaps, perhaps, but there are so many tricky unanswered questions — most of them acknowledged with refreshing frankness by the authors themselves — remaining about language, the relevant cognitive capacities, Baboons and other primates, and indeed, other highly social creatures that appear to lack the relevant cognitive capacities, that the authors’ overarching argument seems too weak to hold together all their interesting observations.

Carl Zimmer. Microcosm: E. Coli and the New Science of Life

E. Coli gets such a bad rap. Most strains are completely harmless, and this little organism has probably taught humanity more about genetics and evolution than any other, since it’s so easy to study, grow, and manipulate in the lab. Zimmer looks at everything from the history of genetics to the politics of evolution in this engaging book.

Jack Weatherford. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Weatherford seems to have two aims in this book. The first is to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Far from being a barbaric, bloodthirsty brute, Weatherford depicts a savvy, open-minded proponent of religious toleration and open trade, who abolished torture and supported multiple far-seeing reforms. (Weatherford does not attempt to argue that Genghis Khan was terribly civilized by today’s standards when it came to the laws of war. Cities that surrendered to him were treated with leniency, but woe to the cities that resisted. This hardly marks him out as special for the period, though.) Genghis Khan’s accomplishments certainly suggest a remarkable man. In the course of a generation or two, the Mongols went from being a loose collection of feuding tribes to conquering a fantastic amount of the earth’s surface. The second aim of the book, announced in the book’s subtitle, is to sketch the many ways that all of this has impacted the rest of the world since then.

I’m not in a position to judge how plausible Weatherford’s account is, but the book is fun and very readable.

Joseph Mitchell. My Ears Are Bent

A collection of newspaper pieces by Joseph Mitchell (who spent most of his career at the New Yorker) originally published between 1929 and 1938. In these short pieces, Mitchell interviews cops, drunks, lady-wrestlers, pickpockets, ASCAP investigators, marijuana smokers, and more from Coney Island to Redhook to the Lower East Side to Harlem. In one memorable piece, he attends an execution; in another, he watches George Bernard Shaw spar irritably with the press. He has a fantastic eye for the telling detail, and wonderful control over the language in which he relates it. A convincing rebuttal to anyone silly enough to think that journalism can’t rise to the level of literature.

Comments Off

2008 10 11

Posted by in: Anecdotal

I went to a concert at the People’s Symphony series this evening. It’s first come first serve, so I got there early to get good seats. Since my date took forever to arrive, I ended up chatting for a while with an older woman sitting beside me. After a conversation about our respective reading lists, it emerged that her son was a well-known philosopher. She was very proud of him, and very happy that I recognized his name immediately, and had heard him speak a few years back at a public event. But after boasting for a while, her thoughts took a darker turn. “You know, he’s such a profound, serious philosopher. So serious. So successful. But do you want to know something? He’s on Facebook!” She looked at me to get my reaction to this news, and then added: “I have to say, he spends a lot of time on Facebook.”

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2008 10 07
My friends, I think Obama did much better in the second debate, my friends, my friends

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Holy crap, old grumpy grandpa McCain said “my friends” about 100 times – each sentence!

There’s lots still to criticize in Obama’s performance, both on substance and on style. But this was an enormous improvement, as far as this Joe Six-Pack can tell.

Also, I can’t believe what McCain is willing to say about the “surge” in Iraq. His description of Iraq today is just mind-boggling.

Neither of them had any interest in answering most of the questions that they were asked.

Howls of outrage (10)

2008 10 06
Soon to be read

Posted by in: Odds and ends

A while back I created a new Amazon wishlist just for books I intend to get from the library (called “To Get From the Library” just to avoid confusion). It was set to private by default, but recently I was thinking about how many books I read on the recommendation of blogs and it occurred to me that people looking for something fun to read might be curious to have a peek at someone else’s reading queue. Anyway, it’s accessible here now, in case that includes you. It’s updated frequently.

Further suggestions are, of course, always welcome.

Howls of outrage (2)

2008 10 04
Bluster: A Comparative Study

Posted by in: Odds and ends

I’ve watched both the Presidential and the Vice-Presidential debates, but I haven’t had a chance yet to catch the Canadian debates (we’re having an election too, as I mentioned earlier). But if you’re curious, you can start watching here.

I meet a lot of Americans who seem to me to have an absurdly generous view of Canada and all things Canadian (except our weather). For them I’d like to point out that there’s a lot of bluster and nonsense in these debates too. (I’ll concede that there’s no one as silly as Sarah Palin here, but then again, there hasn’t been anyone as silly as Sarah Palin at that level since Dan Quayle.)

Sadly, I’m not able to vote in either election, since I’m not a Yank and Canadian election laws — at least on their current interpretation by Elections Canada — require that you have lived in Canada within the last five years.

Howls of outrage (3)

2008 10 04
What kind of school is that again?

Posted by in: Odds and ends

Kevin Parker Flier

(Thanks to Brad and “A” for the scan.)

Howls of outrage (5)

2008 10 02
“Sarah Palin’s Book”

Posted by in: Books, Political issues

Betcha didn’t know Sarah Palin had a book! Oh, but she does! The NRCC told me so today. You see? It says that I can “Get Sarah Palin’s Book” right up there in the subject. So she has a book. It’s hers. It’s just that she didn’t…well…you already know the punchline.


———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Chairman Tom Cole
Date: Thu, Oct 2, 2008 at 5:00 PM
Subject: Get Sarah Palin’s Book Today
To: Redacted


Dear Brad:

Tonight’s debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden will show there has never been a more clear difference between the values of our Party versus the values of Barack Obama and the liberal Democrats.

A Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid team is just too risky a chance to take. That is why your immediate donation is needed today.

The momentum that started during the Republican convention at the beginning of September has continued to build. The presidential race is neck-and-neck and many congressional races around the country are too close to call.

And, hasn’t Governor Sarah Palin shown why she is a great pick for Vice President?

While on the campaign trail she has proved that our Party’s conservative values are not just rhetoric – Sarah Palin walks the walk.

She does that by talking common sense to Americans, and reaffirming their beliefs about what we need to do in Washington to change the direction of the country.

But we can’t send John McCain and Sarah Palin to the White House without support.

They need more Republicans in Congress who share their values and their views, and who will work with them to change the direction of the country.

To help raise funds for our efforts to elect Republicans to Congress, we ask that you make special campaign donation of $100, $150, $250 or whatever you can afford now by clicking here.

If you donate $150 or more now, we will send you a biography of Governor Palin titled SARAH: HOW A HOCKEY MOM TURNED ALASKA’S POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT UPSIDE DOWN as a token of our appreciation for your support

Let’s turn Washington upside down on November 4th and send more Republicans like Sarah Palin to Congress.


Tom Cole, M.C.

P.S. Your contribution of $250, $150, $100 or whatever you can afford, is needed as quickly as possible so we can build upon the momentum Governor Palin has created for our Party! We’ll send you a copy of the biography of Sarah Palin if you contribute $150 or more. But whatever you can give will be a huge help in the final weeks of the campaign. Please click here now to donate today.

Paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)