Monday, June 30, 2008

Obama doing great

I just read some comments over at Daily Kos about Obama. Some people, absurdly, are already talking about being disillusioned with him. Kos in particular is upset at him:
I was going to max out to him today, given I haven't given Obama a dime yet (focusing on congressional candidates). But I changed my mind. He wants to send the message that he doesn't need us, all the power to him. Message received. I'll spend that $2,300 somewhere else.
This is because he disagreed with Wesley Clark's comments about John McCain, and because he said something in his speech on patriotism that criticized the excesses of the 60's.

Please. I have nothing but respect for Kos, but I think this is ridiculous. I think Clark's comments were a little awkward, and Obama needed to clarify that he was not going to dis McCain's military service. These things will get massively misinterpreted very quickly, and Obama needs to take a strong position, because otherwise he WILL be misinterpreted. And I find it incredibly refreshing that a Democrat was willing to point out that the '60's went too far, because I completely agree. Those are broad topics that I can't get into in sufficient detail here, but there is another point that I want to make.

Which is this. If you are disillusioned with Obama because of a couple of comments this early in the campaign, then you should take a serious look at how well you deal with political controversies, because this is nothing. To call either of these "controversies" a tempest in a teapot would be to vastly overstate their importance.

As for the comment about the '60's, Obama has made it clear from day one that he will challenge the sacred cows of liberals. He has never been anything less that completely upfront about that.

Ed Koch used to say that if you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12, see a therapist. Obama is not your candidate alone. He is campaigning for the President of the United States. Every single person who votes for him will have some disagreement with him. Deal with it.

In other words, anyone who is disillusioned with Barack Obama at this stage of the campaign needs to take a deep breath and maybe take a step back, and get ready for some real political fighting.

Schlock and science

When I was in college, I was in the science fiction club (the Swarthmore Warders of Imaginative Literature - work out the acronym), and even president of it at one point. We started a great tradition called the "Schlock Film Festival." We showed the worst B-movies from the '50's and '60's that we could find. It was great. It was also incredibly cheap. Our budget was $200, and for that we could get several movies, because they were so cheap. We would get actual films - real movies, on celluloid, not just VHS. The kind you put through a projector. You could rent one for $50. We were professionals about having bad taste.

Now the LA Natural History Museum has come with a variation on our festival. It's called "B Movies and Bad Science." The idea is to show movies based on atrociously bad science, and use real science to explain why it's wrong.

I think that's a wonderful idea. Perfect for a museum in LA - movies and science! I'm going to try to catch at least one.

Box office numbers - right and wrong

Last Friday, I wrote a post about box office projections. I compared my projections to that of the LA Times. Turns out that the Times was right about Wall-E. They projected $66M, I projected $70M, and it came in at $62, so we were both too high, but within the neighborhood.

But on Wanted, we were both way off. The Time predicted $39M, I was a little more optimistic at $42, but it hit $51, much better than expected. So I was closer, but still off.

Unlike Bill Kristol, I am capable of admitting it when I am wrong. Of course, I also bet on these movies on the Hollywood Stock Exchange, so I know how wrong I was. I lost money on both stocks over the weekend. Fortunately, I was way ahead for both.

Bill Kristol on Iraq - oh so wrong

Andrew Sullivan dug up a book that William Kristol wrote in 2002/2003, before the invasion of Iraq. Of course, he predicted an easy victory. Of course, he was spectacularly wrong. How wrong? Sullivan:
In fact, it would be very hard to think of a piece of analysis so riddled with misconceptions and errors and so self-evidently wrong in almost every respect only five years later.
He predicted that we might need as many as 75,000 troops at a cost of $16 billion a year. A year. Sullivan again, on how wrong Kristol was:
Kristol was off in his troops levels by a factor of two at the start of the occupation and by up to 20 today and he was off in his cost levels by a factor of ten. He also predicted "several thousand" troops by 2005, compared with 150,000 today.
What this brings up, obviously, is questions of accountability. Sullivan, who has done a great deal to admit his own mistakes and try to atone for them, has the moral authority to write this:
It seems to me that we demand accountability from our politicians and we should demand accountability from our intellectuals. Not that they always get things right - but that they give a full accounting when they are wrong. Instead we reward and celebrate those who not only get things wrong - Kristol and Rove now have prominent columns in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal - but those who have never taken personal responsibility for their own mistakes. Until we purge all these tendencies from Washington, we will not learn from history and we will keep repeating it.
The first element in holding these people accountable will be to hold their favorite politicians accountable. Kristol is still riding on Bush's coattails. He can still claim connection to the Bush White House. If and when Obama wins, he will naturally turn into the oppressed voice of the opposition. But it will be very easy to ridicule him if he tries that tactic. Bill Kristol, ultraprivileged straight white American male, voice of the oppressed? The satire will practically write itself.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

How to not vote: a guide for the apathetic

Just in case you're completely burned out on politics and aliented from the democratic process, The Onion News Network has some tips for you:

Today Now!: How To Pretend You Give A Shit About The Election

hat tip: Andrew Sulivan

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigned together in Unity, New Hampshire. How cute is this? Unity held the first primary, and 107 people voted for Obama, and 107 voted for Hillary. The Clintons have also donated to Obama's campaign, while the Obamas have donated to Hillary's campaign, to help her relieve her debt.

Give it up for Hillary! Let's hear it for party unity! Democrats together!

Now on to the general election.

Friday, June 27, 2008

David Addington is (technically) not the Devil

David Addington appeared in Congress today, before a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee. I now have definitive proof that David Addington is not, in fact, the Devil. He is not Satan; of this we can be sure. How do I know this? Because the Devil, it is said, can be very charming, and Addington was anything but. The title of Dana Milbank's column put it well:
When Anonymity Fails, Be Nasty, Brutish and Short
Milbank describes him as having "the grace of Gollum." He apparently treated members of Congress with contempt and answered their questions with arrogance and sarcasm. And this man is chief of staff to the Vice President. I'm not going to go into questions of whether or not he and John Yoo, who also testified, were instrumental in providing the legal justification for torture; at this point, I think that's clear as can be, short of a convicting these slimebags in a court of law (which I really wouldn't mind). They are thugs, pure and simple. Addington makes Tony Soprano look enlightened and progressive. At least Tony was providing for his family.

Andrew Sullivan, who has been vigilant on covering these assholes and what a disgrace they are to the rule of law, disagrees with Milbank's comparison of Addington with Gollum, but only because he has a more appropriate analogy:
"Gollum? He's Sauron, mate."
Sullivan's title for his post is as good as Milbank's:
Fuck You, He Explained
(sorry about the language, Mom).

In an earlier post, Sullivan pulled out this quote from the NY Times story, from Addington:
"No, I wouldn’t be responsible, is the answer to your question. Legally or morally," - David Addington, answering whether his own approval of torture methods had anything to do with the CIA's subsequent use of waterboarding and other torture
techniques against prisoners in US custody.
A small note of personal pride here: the person who called this hearing, and who asked this question, is Jerold Nadler. He used to be my Representative when I lived in New York. He's a good guy, and I'm glad he is doing his damnedest to expose these scumbags. The World Trade Center was in his district. I'm glad he asked a question that got David Addington to express not only his own philosophy, but Bush's as well. Sullivan's title for this post captures the sentiment of people who believe in power without accountability:
The Bush Era Finds Its Quote
We are fortunate that there is a third option available to us in this country for holding despicable human beings like Addington accountable, and that is what I call "political responsibility." In this respect, he is responsible, and can and will be held accountable. Moral responsibility is a personal issue; either you or someone close to you holds you responsible. Legal responsibility exists in a wider venue, the justice system, where accountability is harder to enforce, but also more serious. Political responsibility exists in the widest possible arena, the country as a whole. In Addington's case, he cannot be held accountable politically in a strictly defined sense; he is not an elected official. But he and his associates can nonetheless be held accountable not only by the the body public, but also by their ideological and party fellow travelers. If this election turns out the way I think it will, the way I hope it does, the GOP is going to be humiliated in November. And Addington and Yoo are going to start taking a fair chunk of the blame. Personally, I wouldn't want millions of people hating me and blaming me for the failure of a political party. I wouldn't want to be a source of division among some of the most powerful people in Washington. I don't know whether or not Addington will suffer personally in any way. But I do know that his ideas will be thoroughly discredited. I doubt he will ever admit to being wrong; I'm sure he will make a good enough a living that he won't have to. But at some point he will be an object of ridicule within his own party. It won't be pleasant, being cast out as a failure.

Elly Peterson

The NY Times had an obituary earlier this week about a woman named Elly Peterson, who was a moderate Republican from Michigan. She's one of those women who had talents that didn't match the opportunities available to her at the time she lived. She was apparently quite an organizer. She started out as a secretary for the Michigan Republican party, and six years later was the assistant chairwoman of the national party. Unfortunately, that was as far as she could go, because she was a woman. But she did run for Senate on her own. Also unfortunately, she ran in 1964, which was a terrible year for Republicans, and lost.

She's a great example of a time when there really were moderates in the Republican party. Try to imagine someone from the GOP doing this today:
Outgoing and energetic, she proved to be a superb saleswoman for the party, whose reach she tried to extend to new constituencies. In Detroit and other cities, for example, she established party offices and service centers in black neighborhoods.
A white Republican woman in the era of Leave it to Beaver doing outreach in Detroit. That's gutsy. It's not inconceivable for me; my grandfather, who was a lawyer in Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois, was a similar kind of moderate Republican - he was, so my mother tells me, a member of the Urban League. I like to think that maybe my grandparents knew this woman.

Equally fascinating is her passion for feminism; she campaigned for the ERA. I can only imagine her disillusionment with the current state of the Republican party. I do know, however, that she was disappointed in it. This year, she supported Hillary. A woman of principles to the end.

Box office projections for the weekend

The LA Times runs a weekly feature projecting the box office numbers for the top ten movies. I'm only interested in two movies this weekend, Wall-e and Wanted. The Times has Wall-e at $66.8 million and Wanted at $39.5 million. I think the Wall-E estimate is on the low end, while Wanted is probably about right, maybe a little low. I use the Hollywood Stock Exchange for my predictions.

On HSX, the Wall-e is trading at H$198.33, which translates to an opening weekend of $70 million. Also, it's up H$5.67 today, which is a sign that it will open well, possibly above $70M. The strike price for the Wall-E options is H$65, with the call halting at H$7.59, and the put halting at H$1.87. The price for the call suggests an opening around $75M. So I'm looking for about $72, possibly higher.

Wanted has been relatively stable, between about H$113 and H$136 recently. It halted today at H$120.58, which translates to an opening weekend of H$43. It is also up for the day, by H$6.87, which suggests an opening of somewhere around $45M. However, the strike price for the Wanted options is $45, but the call is at H$2.00, while the put is at $5.12. That's more pessimistic, so I am going to go with $42M for Wanted.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Optimism about light rail in LA

The MTA, aka the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the primary transporation agency for LA County (but far from the only one) is in the middle of some serious long-range planning. I've been following this with half an ear; I know it's going on, but I haven't followed in great detail. The one part that I am very aware of is plans for building a subway under Wilshire, continuing the purple line from downtown out to Santa Monica. I live about 4 blocks from the purple line, but I live near the second-to-last stop. It really needs to be built out all the way to Santa Monica. That would alleviate a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, it will probably cost at least $5 billion.

One problem is that there is no shortage of worthwhile public transportation projects in LA. If someone dropped $100 billion on LA for light rail, I'm sure we could find good uses for it immediately. One of the very worthwhile projects is extending the Gold Line out to Azusa. This isn't quite as economically worthwhile as the Purple Line, but it's also much less expensive; supposedly $80 million will get it started.

The LA Times has an excellent Op-Ed about this dilemma. It looks like a straightforward, traditional zero-sum issue: if one part of LA will gets the money, the other part won't get any. But the Times suggests that perhaps such pessimism is unwarranted; a bond issue is coming up in November, and hopefully there will be enough money for both projects.

I completely agree. What the Times doesn't mention is that public transportation is one of those issues where success breeds success. The more light rail there is in LA, the more people depend on it, the more people will vote to support it.

Thank goodness we have a great mayor here who believes in public transportation.

Sharapova out at Wimbledon

Maria Sharapova lost in the second round of Wimbledon. That's too bad. I now have no interest in Wimbledon for the rest of the tournament.

Clinton campaigns for Obama

Hillary Clinton made her first campaign appearance for Obama today, speaking before the National Association of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials (NALEO). That's great. She's a total pro. She has been at this long enough to know that when you're down and out, you pick yourself up and keep on going. I think part of her strength at this moment is realizing how historic was her achievement of being the first woman to run for President and have a serious shot at it. No one will ever be able to take that away from her.

I am looking forward to her campaigning with Obama in the general election. And I hope Obama's fundraisers manage to retire a chunk of her debt.

Supreme Court rules on the Second Amendment

The Supreme Court has released its ruling on the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller. They've decided that Americans do have a fundamental right to own guns. Personally, I am not that surprised or even disappointed by the ruling. I would have been in favor of a ban, but I think the more important principle is that the ruling affirmed that the state can regulate firearms. Some day I would love to ask Wayne LaPierre, of the NRA, "What exactly does the phrase 'well-regulated' mean to you?"

The answer to that question, for me, is that there are two potential interpretations of the phrase "well-regulated." It could mean "lots of laws," or it could mean "good laws." I prefer to think that it means "good laws."

Of course, the definition of "good laws" will differ greatly, depending on who is doing the defining. Five members of the Supreme Court decided that the law in the Distrcit of Columbia severely restricting the right of individuls to own a certain type of gun was not a good law. But the principle that this is not an unlimited right, that the state has a right to regulate gun ownership, was reaffirmed by the majority.

Politically, I think this will work out well for both McCain and Obama. McCain can claim that the Supreme Court has determined that the Second Amendment does confer a right to own guns, while Obama can claim that the Supreme Court has determined that the Second Amendment allows the state to regulate that possesion of firearms. Which is close to Obama's position on guns - he has said that individuals have a right to own guns.

I hope that this tones down the debate, but I'm not optimistic. It is going to be harder for some hardcore gun nuts to claim persecution by the government. It will now also be almost impossible for gun owners to claim that any regulation is too much. The only question now is how much regulation of guns is permissible. Which is an appropriate question for a legislature in a democracy.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Apparently we are in a recession

This was one of the big headlines in the LA Times' Business section today:

Chapman University forecasters say U.S. is in recession

Here's the opening paragraph:
As housing prices continue to tumble in most regions, forecasters from Chapman
University said Tuesday that the U.S. economy had fallen into a recession that wouldn't ease until next year.

In other groundbreaking, earth-shattering news, the grass is green, the sky is blue, eating too much junk food can make you fat, and bowling balls hurt when you drop them on your foot. Also, Cameron Diaz is beautiful, Meryl Streep is a great actress, and Steven Spielberg is a famous director. More profound and deeply meaningful insights tomorrow.

Is there really any doubt about this?

I realize that there is a technical definition of "recession;" which is two quarters of negative growth. But using that definition means that you can't definitively say whether or not you're in a recession until it's already well under way. That's like saying a married couple shouldn't decide whether or not they are still in love until after they are divorced.

But let's see: the housing market is crashing like no one has ever seen, gas prices are skyrocketing, car sales are dropping through the floor, unemployment is up, the stock market isn't moving, and lots of people are worried about their jobs. Other than that, we're not sure we're in a recession.

Normally I am obsessive about maintaining high standards of intellectual discipline when discussing socioeconomic issues. But there are strong emotional and political components of this as well as strictly defined economic criteria. We are going to need strong political leadership to get out of this, and arguing about whether or not we are in a recession fudges the issue. Which, in all fairness, the LA Times is not doing - they are not debating the issue, and they are certainly not fudging anything. Hopefully, they are helping to end any debate.

I think it's safe to say, at this point, that we are in a recession.

Too many superhero movies?

Is it possible that we have too many superhero movies coming out this summer? This thot had not occurred to me until I read Rachel Abramowitz in the LA Times today. She is starting to burn out on the men of steel:
Sp far this summer, I've had my brain pummeled by Robert Downey Jr. flying around in a techno-suit, Adam Sandler as an invincible (and priapic) former Mossad agent, Steve Carell as a nerdy indestructible super spy, Harrison Ford as a Teflon 60-year-old archaeologist, Edward Norton as the incredibly angry green dude -- which I admit I missed but saw the ads. However, I did catch an early screening of Will Smith as a hung-over but still unbeatable superhero. And I still have "The Dark Knight" and "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" to go.

I don't know how many more superhero movies I can take.

Some were good superhero movies. Some were bad superhero movies. Yet, they're all beginning to merge together as a very long series of whammies, and fireballs, and ironic quips. In my mind, which might have been addled by the decibel level in the theaters, Hancock is taking down Indiana Jones. Zohan canoodles and karate chops Agent 99. My butt is kicked. Your butt is kicked. Sigh.
I can see where she is coming from: too much of a good thing, etc. Of course, she's not in the target demographic, as she realizes.
OK, MAYBE it's just me. I'm not a 14-year-old boy; so all this superhero firepower isn't hitting me in the solar plexus.
Looking for a hook to explain this sociologically, she tries out the idea that this is a sign of where we are now as a society.
Author Peter Biskind . . . assures me that superheroes return with bad times.
. . .
"Who doesn't want a superhero when the world is in trouble?" asks marketing guru Jane Buckingham of the Youth Intelligence Group, who studies young people. "Who doesn't want somebody to come save the day when the world is a mess?
Personally, I think this is a fun idea to play with, but I'm not sure I buy it. These movies have been in development for years, long before the subprime mess or exploding gas prices. Iron Man has been around in comic book form for literally decades.

But I'm also not that worried about too many superhero movies. I'm fine with all of them. Also, she blurs genres a bit - Zohan and Get Smart are about normal guys who are just a little special, but don't have any super powers. They're much more action/comedies than superhero movies. As a once-upon-a-time 14 year old boy, this is a key distinction for me. Maybe not for other people.

Going beyond her own lack of interest in any more instantiations of this genre, and refining the political connection, Abramowitz brings Obama into the discussion.
Like all caped crusaders, he is a mysterious cipher, and yet a reassuring figure, like Superman or Spider-Man. And you all know that beautiful, lanky Michelle Obama would look great in her own spandex.
Michelle Obama as a superhero: I am totally there. I'm not sure I want to go into Obama as superhero, because I don't want to be accused of drinking the Kool Aid, but I think there are some interesting ideas there. I will try to keep this in mind as I review more movies over the summer.

Bush embarasses us again

Dear God, the end can't come soon enough. This is a video of Bush meeting the President of the Philipines, Gloria Arroyo. First, notice the body language - staring at the floor, squirming, slumping - could he be any less dignified or uncomfortable? And, of course, stumbling through a basic English sentence. But then he compliments Filipino Americans by noting that the chef at the White House is Filipino. He didn't mention that she's a woman. The LA Times has a nice piece about Cristeta "Cris" Comerford. Even when he's trying to be just a good host, Bush messes up. It's a nice gesture to mention his chef, but this is about the most awkward way possible to do it. His chef is obviously someone very close to him, but this is the most prominent Filipino American he can mention? How about something like this: "I'm sure President Arroyo will enjoy dinner at the White House - our chef is a Filipino American, Cris Comerford. She's really taught me to appreciate Filipino cuisine." He makes this about himself; "when I eat dinner at the White House." If you're going to try to be gracious, it's really helpful to give someone a compliment. "A really good cook?" Of COURSE she's a "really good cook." She's the White House chef! She's got to be one of the best cooks in the country! Paying a compliment is an art form - and we all know what George W. Bush thinks about art.

I got this from from Talking Points Memo, who got it from HuffPost. In all fairness, I have to point out a mistake on the part of HuffPost, which described her as "a Filipino member of his kitchen staff." She is NOT "a member of his kitchen staff." That's like calling the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs a grunt. She is the White House chef, which is a great honor. In a kitchen, the chef is the head honcho, and accorded a great deal of respect. If you're going to criticize Bush for his insensitivity, don't make the same mistake yourself. If Bush had made it clear that he appreciates his chef for her artistry, that would at least made it sound a little better. HuffPost, please don't compound Bush's error.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Get Smart

So I saw Get Smart, which is an updated take on the original TV show. I can barely remember the original, but I do know that part of the joke was that Maxwell Smart wasn't actually all that smart. This time around, he's actually quite the geek, obsessed with stats and charts and reports and apparently pretty good at his job, which is being a desk jockey at CONTROL, the supersecret government agency. You've never heard of it, right? See, that's how secret it is. He's so good at his job that he's getting bored and wants to move to where the action is, being an agent. And it looks like he probably deserves it, and, don't know you, he gets it.

That's what Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, gets. What Steve Carrell, the actor, gets is a chance to be funny in a role for which he is just about ideally suited. What Steve Carrell the actor DOES NOT get is a script worthy or his talents, or a director wtih as good a sense of comedy as Carrell has.

I'm going to go with "better than adequate" as my evaluation, and I am going to give the credit for the "better" largely to the cast. Carrell has made an interesting choice, which is to upgrade Maxwell Smart's native intelligence. He's not quite a bumbling idiot, he's more of a bureaucrat who's not quite aware that he's not really tailor made to be an agent. He's stiff, a little clueless, and just not really an undercover kind of guy, but he's not stupid.

But he does wear a suit and tie in the middle of the Russian countryside. Um, hello, aren't spies supposed to be incognito? Isn't blending in a key part of the job description? I think the CIA went business casual a LONG time ago.

Anne Hathaway has also upgraded Agent 99. I don't remember much about Barbara Feldon's take on the role, but my impression is that she was generally more competent than 86, and tended to be the one who got him out of trouble, but she never took advantage of her superior abilities - she never lorded it over Max.

Anne Hathaway's Agent 99 knows damn well that she is much more talented than Max, and takes every opportunity to let him know that she knows it. I found this wonderfully refreshing. This is something that few filmmakers seem to appreciate - competency can be very charming. It also provides multiple - nay, constant - opportunities for repartee and banter as they bicker and fight while trying to stop the dastardly KAOS from achieving - one guess what the bad guys want - world domination.

Terence Stamp, trading in on decades of building an image perfect for the role of evil genius, aces it, but is also woefully underused. The man can instill fear without moving a single facial muscle, and does so, but more pure villainy and wickedness would have sharpened the sense of danger, and, therefore, the sense of fun. We remember Goldfinger's exchange with 007 ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.") because the threat was visible and therefore visceral as the laser sliced its way towards Bond's crotch. As vile as Stamp can make Siegfried, too much of a slapstick feel for the movie as a whole takes him closer to Dr. Evil than Keyser Soze.

The plot can be easily followed, but not easily swallowed. You've heard the term "a hole big enough to drive a truck through?" The space shuttle could fit through some of gaps of logic here, with room to spare. It feels like pieces of several scripts were pieced together, and no one went through the final product and said, "You know, these scenes, which made sense in their respective drafts, when combined, are totally ridiculous." Oh, look, the ultrasecret, incredibly high tech headquarters has been trashed! Catastrophe! Disaster! Whatever shall we do!?!

Why don't we wait two days, and, through the magic of Hollywood, it will be rebuilt, exactly the same as before! Close your eyes, snap your fingers, blow out all the candles, your wish for a brand new HQ will come true, and an exact duplicate of the one that was destroyed just hours ago will appear before your very eyes! Oops. If it weren't actually intentional, that one would qualify as the mother of all continuity errors. As it is, it is laughable. Laughter is good in a comedy, but not for reasons like this. At one point, Smart finds a trap door in the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall. Right. He's going to go into a secret entrance in broad daylight in plain view of one of the most famous tourist attractions on the planet.

I didn't bother trying to suspend disbelief, because that would have been an exercise in futilty. But the cast is so good that I enjoyed myself just watching them. Alan Arkin as The Chief? Perfect. Again, somewhat underused, but a joy to watch. At one point he tackles a high (very high) government official. I would have loved to have seen that up close and personal, and not just because I would love to see any version of the person currently holding that position get smacked around. James Caan has a cameo as the president - he could have used a few better lines. Dwayne Johnson (fka "The Rock") has a great sense of how to use his phenomenal screen presence to good effect. The rest of the cast is solid, but I really wanted to see more women in the minor roles. For example, there are two "analysts" who look like they still wish they could have gone to the prom - one's Asian, one is on the heavy side. Stereotypes through and through. The actors are good, but I think making one of them a nerdy woman with a crush on Max would have been more fun. And whatever happened to the idea of having a henchwoman at the side of the evil genius who can kill with her manicure?

Anne Hathaway is more than adequate as the dominant female presence onscreen, but she is also easily strong enough to have been able to share some screen time with other women. She's growing up fast onscreen. Fortunately, while she always manages to look fantastic - the woman knows how to look really, really good in white leather - there's only one cheesy cleavage shot. This is great. She's much sexier when she's not being a sex symbol. It's so much more fun to watch a beautiful woman and be able to respect her for what she's doing, because you end up having more respect for yourself. It's nice to be able to say that you appreciate her for her mind and mean it.

If only the directing were as good as the acting. Missed opportunities abound, absurdities are too numerous to mention. Homeland Security gets a call from Siegfried announcing that he has nuclear weapons, and is about to use them. He's dismissed out of hand as a crank. Because, of course, we all know that the US government is taking it easy on terrorists these days. The climactic scene involves Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nice touch, and I always love hearing that piece of music, but a concert is filled with great visuals - violinists bowing away, entire sections moving in time with the conductor's baton - none of which are captured. The conductor is an old white guy - stereotype again - but Esa-Pekka Salonen is only 49, and Gustavo Dudamel is in his 20's (and boy would he have been fun to see in this movie). That building just about begs for some interesting aerial cinematography.

As impossibly gorgeous as Anne Hathaway's eyes are, they are even more beautiful in a movie even half as interesting as she is. Which this, unfortunately, is not.

George Carlin on baseball and football

In honor of George Carlin, I'm posting one of his classic routines, this one about baseball vs. football.

George Carlin, 1937-2008

George Carlin died yesterday in Santa Monica of heart failure. He was 71.

A great quote from the NY Times obit:

Although some criticized parts of his later work as too contentious, Mr. Carlin defended the material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society. “Scratch any cynic,” he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

Still, when pushed to explain the pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints and grievances. “I don’t have pet peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer. And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic hatreds.”
I once made him a sandwich when I was working at Whole Foods in Brentwood. He was very polite, even when people came up to him and started talking to him about people they both knew or whatever people talk to brilliant comics about.

I liked his performances, and I've skimmed his books (now I'll probably buy at least one, although it's too late for him to get the royalties), but for me, he will always be Rufus in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Here's his straight-faced explication of what is one of the stupidest, silliest, and yet and most wonderful premises in the history of film:

That's why I was sent to make sure you passed your History report. If you guys were separated it would have been disastrous for life as we know it. You see, eventually your music will help put an end to war and poverty. It will align the planets and bring them into universal harmony. Allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life. From extra terrestrials to common household pets. And, it's excellent for dancing.
I really don't think that movie would have worked as well as it did without George Carlin to render believable such an absurd idea - that the future of humanity depended on two total slackers. If he could believe in them, so could we. The movie starts out with his explanation of this ridiculousness:
You see, 700 years ago the Two Great Ones ran into a few problems. So now I have to travel back in time to help them out. If I should fail to keep these two on the correct path, the basis of our society will be in danger. Don't worry. It'll all make sense. I'm a professional.
Yes he was.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Political ads are getting creepier

Political ads are usually pretty formulaic - vote for me because I'm a strong, honest person, and my opponents believes in human sacrifice - but this takes it to a new level.

We are so desperate for more intercity rail here in CA

Calitics has a good summary of the state of intercity rail here in California. Suffice to say that we are bursting at the seams, and the immediate future doesn't look great. Also, there isn't all that much hope, as long as we have the current administrations in Sacramento and Washington.

It's a little odd that Arnold has not been better on this issue, because he has pushed hard to improve California's infrastructure. I think Arnold is the right kind of Republican at the wrong time. On social issues, he's great, but on fiscal issues like this, he is hamstrung by being part of the Republican party in this day and age. Putting money into something like intercity rail should be a no-brainer for Republicans, because it's about efficiency. Moving people by rail is by far the most efficient means of doing so. And every businessperson understands that you have to invest in your business, you have to make capital investments, to stay competitive. In the current environment, tho, Republicans simply assume that government is bad, and, if liberals are in favor of it, then that makes it even worse.

I don't like writing in those kinds of stereotypes. I don't like reducing my political opponents to caricatures. But that seems to be how the GOP is working these days.

There's an old saying in politics that people don't rebel unless they have some kind of hope. That's why Obama's message of hope is not just empty rhetoric. He won't be able to change the game until he's actually in office, but if he can get those people riding on a standing-room only train to think that maybe there is a possibility of making this all work better, then they might mobilize and act in concert with him, and with one another.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Obama on mass transit policy

I live in a city and take public transportation to work. It works well for me. It's amazing to me that mass transit actually works in a city so famous for cars, but it does. I'm fairly confident that Obama will make funding mass transit a priority. Doing more than Bush, of course, would be absurdly easy. I haven't seen specifics, but Matt Yglesias quotes Obama at length on making metro areas (as opposed to just cities) more livable, and offers a nice summation of Obama's stance on light rail etc.:
Nevertheless, the country's actually seen quite a lot in terms of light rail projects undertaken and cities trying to make themselves more bike friendly. It's at least conceivable that a relatively small change in federal policy could have a pretty big impact on decision-making at the state and local level -- as with education policy, the feds aren't really the key drivers, but they sometimes have the ability to leverage big changes with relatively small sums of money.
I also have a feeling that this is one of those areas where the public is quietly ahead of politicians, but no one knows it. The stereotype of the person who takes mass transit is someone who has no other choice, but lots of people, particularly in a city as large as LA, would love to take a bus or train, especially with gas above $4 a gallon.

This also speaks to another underappreciated advantage that Obama has. There are lots and lots and lots of groups out there dedicated to improving public transportation. They are ready and willing to jump up and get to work, making proposals, generating publicity, convincing the public that there are solutions out there. They just need the kind of attention only a President can provide.

Ethics problems at the WaPo

Surfing political blogs on a Saturday night is usually an exercise in futility; most responsible bloggers have gone on to live their lives, as they should do. But I happened upon an interesting link at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish. A quote from David Broder:

"I am embarrassed by these mistakes and the embarrassment it has caused the paper,''
Curious about what malfeasance David Broder has been guilty of, I followed the link, and wound up here, a column by the Washington Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell. I like her; she seems like the kind of person who should be watching over the ethical standards of one of the country's most important papers, serious and responsible. Apparently Broder took some speaking fees from organizations that he shouldn't have. He clearly made a mistake, but how serious is open to question; it doesn't look like he took money in exchange for anything other than giving a talk. He's already semi-retired, so there isn't much the Post can do to him. I used to be a fan of Broder, but I tend to agree with the Kossacks that he has been a font of misguided wisdom of late. I distinctly remember reading him on a regular basis when I lived in DC and occasionally being impressed with his insight. I don't know what happened exactly, but I don't think he has kept pace with how politics has changed. And it's unfortunate that a long career ends on this unfortunate note. He clearly was not thinking clearly.

Woodward also made some speeches, but put all of the money into a foundation. Better, but still somewhat questionable. In his position, I can see why he would do that. He is famous, and this sounds like a way to put that fame to use.

What really blew my mind, though, was this sentence from Howell's column:

Most of all, The Post needs an unambiguous, transparent well-known policy on speaking fees and expenses.
I'm sorry, but what was that verb again? NEEDS? As in, there is a need to be met?


What is WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?!?! You cover WASHINGTON. World center of ethical scandals. Congress has clear and specific rules on members giving speeches. Bill Clinton has made a fortune giving speeches. Inviting influential people to show up at a conference to share their wisdom is a very common way of spreading the wealth among the capitol's elite. You didn't notice this?

Allow me to share an anecdote. When I was in high school in suburban Detroit, Carl Levin came and gave a speech. The school had raised money for a speaker's fund in honor of a student who died. We gave a check to Levin at the end of his speech. He immediately gave it back, because he does not accept speaking fees.

That was in the 1980's. Carl Levin has had that policy for AT LEAST TWENTY YEARS. And it hasn't occured to anyone at the Washington Post that maybe they need a clearly defined policy along the same lines? This was the best that they could come up with:
[Executive Editor Len] Downie unearthed a 1995 memo outlining the rules on speeches, but it is not widely known about in the newsroom.
Woodward and Bernstein have been world famous for 35 years. I imagine Post reporters have all kinds of opportunities to make money on the side - they talk to lobbyists, businesspeople, conference organizers, etc., all the time. And the best they could come up with is an old memo from 13 years ago that no one has seen? Hello? The potential for conflicts of interest or the appearance of impropriety in this kind of situation, in WASHINGTON, DC, hasn't occured to anyone recently? My respect for the Post just dropped a notch or two. I'm going to narrow that to say that my respect for the Post's management is what has been compromised here, and leave the reporters and editors out of it. But I am disappointed. I will be watching to see what happens here.

Friday, June 20, 2008

David Brooks is losing it

I occasionally finding myself thinking new and interesting thots after reading David Brooks. He seems like a decent kind of guy, the kind of conservative who agrees with liberals on the goals of improving the world in various ways, but disagrees on the methods. And sometimes he writes columns that are not ideological or political, but just observations, and those are usually particularly thought-provoking.

At the beginning of the primary season, he seemed very impressed by Barack Obama, appreciating him as a deep and sensitive thinker.

Not anymore, apparently. He is no longer drinking the Kool Aid. In his column today, he's like a man waking up from a bad dream, terrified that was disturbed in might actually come true. Barack Obama might actually be a sensitive intellectual AND a great politician!

as recent weeks have made clear, Barack Obama is the most split-personality politician in the country today. On the one hand, there is Dr. Barack, the high-minded, Niebuhr-quoting speechifier who spent this past winter thrilling the Scarlett Johansson set and feeling the fierce urgency of now. But then on the other side, there’s Fast Eddie Obama, the promise-breaking, tough-minded Chicago pol who’d throw you under the truck for votes.

The first problem with this analysis is the idea that Obama has to be a split personality to be at once a high-minded idealist and an effective, pragmatic politician. That's a convenient, black-and-white way of looking at the world. It's also an idea that has been consistently reinforced by the Bush Administration, which was staffed by people who were NEITHER high-minded idealists NOR effective, pragmatic
politicians. How is it possible to transcend this apparent divide between starry-eyed romanticism and hard-edged realism?

We Democrats have a name for people who can hold these two apparently contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time.

We call them "professionals."

This may come as a shock to David Brooks, but many people in this country are both good at their jobs, and decent human beings. Some of them are both really good at their jobs, and people of high ethical and moral standards.

This may be a landmark column, for at least a couple of reasons. First, Brooks, normally a very level-headed man, is practically in full melt-down mode here. He's not just worried, he's panicked. I think that's great for us. It shows that Obama is already changing the game, and redefining the political landscape, so that Republicans are scared of Democrats, instead of the other way around.

The second reason is that he makes it obvious how innovative Republicans can be at coming up with new and exciting smear tactics. This column is just riddled with snide innuendo: "the Scarlett Johansson set." I like Scarlett Johansson, but Brooks is just using her here as a symbol of young (blonde) Hollywood, presumably dissolute and shallow. He also references, just for good measure, the character Ari in Entourage, who is an agent, the slickest of the slick. He keeps repeating the phrase "under the truck," implying that Obama has betrayed various people and causes, and apparently unaware that the phrase is "under the bus." And he's from Chicago. Never mind that it is in the heartland, allegedly where many good, responsible, middle-class Americans come from, it is from now on to be knows as the city of tough politicos, the kind with sharp elbows.

PQuincy, a blogger at TPM, has an excellent post taking apart the factual absurdities of Brooks's column. I am referring readers to that because it would take me an hour to catalog the banalities in this column.

What's clear is that Obama has gotten under Brooks' skin. He's faking him out. And we still have 4 1/2 months to go before the election. Republicans are not worried about Obama. They are terrified.

How weird can this campaign get?

Remember Obama Girl? Now there's a McCain Girl. Or maybe I should say McCain Grrril. Because - in all seriousness - you won't like her when she's angry.

FISA compromise passes House

The House passed the FISA compromise.

The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill overhauling the rules on the government’s wiretapping powers and conferring what amounts to legal immunity to the telephone companies that took part in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Note that the NY Times, in its opening paragraph on the story, describes the compromise for the telecoms as "legal immunity." In a sense, that's good, because it's clear that that is the story in the mainstream media. At least they're calling it what it is.

I haven't been following this all that closely, because it is horrendously technical, and I could have really been dragged deep into it, which I don't have time for. I make one distinction that no one else seems to be making: there is a difference between the legal and the political aspects of this. Whether or not the telecoms broke the law is a legal question; whether or not they should be granted immunity is a politcal one. With this bill, the question of whether or not the telecoms broke the law will be decided in the courts, which is as it should be, since this is a legal question. So I agree with that.

As for the rest of it, I'm not enough of a lawyer or expert on this to pass judgment. I do like this:

as Nancy Pelosi insisted, it needed to be established that the FISA law was the only way to legally wiretap an individual--in other words, under this law the Executive can't just go ahead and do it.
I trust Nancy Pelosi's judgment on that.

I'm sure the rest of it has lots of things that I don't like. If the Bush Administration is even remotely happy, and the ACLU is seriously unhappy, something's wrong. But, as Joe Klein puts it,

I favor the compromise because I believe the civil liberties encoded into the law are important, and because I wanted to deprive the Bush Administration, and the McCain campaign, of the political bludgeon.
It makes me very uncomfortable to be thinking of this in political terms - i.e., thank God the Republicans can't accuse the Democrats of being "soft on terror." I tend to agree with the Kossacks, who have been leading the charge on this one, that Democrats should not be afraid of Republicans on this issue, and they should not be afraid to put principles first.

But I also want to get to the point where the Democrats do not have to worry about Republican attacks on them for being "soft on terror."

As I expected, I'm mostly with Obama on this one.

"It is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives - and the liberty - of the American people."
The one glimmer of hope that I have in this debate is that next year, when and if Republicans are not in power, they are going to be much, much more skeptical of the power of the government. That is the one lesson that I take away from this.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Obama turns down public financing

Obama has announced that he will not be accepting public financing for the general election. Good for him. I'm all for that.

Senator Barack Obama announced Thursday that he would not participate in the public financing system for presidential campaigns. He argued that the system had collapsed, and would put him at a disadvantage running against Senator John McCain, his likely Republican opponent.

Accepting public financing would have meant limiting himself to $84 million. That's not much. He's raised $250 million so far. I would much rather see my candidate going into battle with heavy artillery.

Speaking of artillery, Kos, a former artillery officer in the Army, makes a crucial distinction about money in politics:

I haven't been shy about my general opposition to the current campaign finance regime. The so-called "reformers" that want to clean up politics have so lost sight of the original problem, that they think money is the problem in politics, when in fact it is the unwarranted influence of big money.

If you give $20 to a candidate, not a problem. If big money donor bundles $100,000 in exchange for favorable tax breaks for his or her industry, that's not okay.

I always find it odd that some people want to "take money out of politics." You can't take money out of politics. That would be like taking food out of restaurants, or taking the fun out of Disney World. Politics is about money. Politics is about resolving conflicts of interest, and many conflicts of interest revolve around money. It is not possible to eliminate the role of money in politics. Talking about doing that is an exercise is self-delusion. The best that you can do is regulate it as best as possible. I'm all in favor of transparency when it comes to money in politics. Completely eliminating it, however, is just wishful thinking.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

More and more philosphy majors

Never thot I would read this. According to the NYTimes, philosophy is an ever-more popular major among undergrads. Huh. Wow. Weird. Interesting.

This trend, of course, immediately raises questions. Is it true? Are we justified in believing this? What is the meaning of this? Can we judge it to be a positive for society?

Or is this an example of mass delusion, thousands of people spontaneously believing something - that majoring in philosophy is a worthwhile endeavor - the assumptions of which have never been conclusively proven? Is the unexamined life really not worth living? Is it possible that people who live their lives unexamined do live fulfilled, meaningful lives?

More importantly, is it possible to get a job as a philosophy major? Yes, but it is highly advised that you go to law school.

I was a philosophy major. My parents were supportive and encouraged me. My mother, however, did ask me if I was going to start a philosophy store. No, I couldn't assign a value to Hegel, and Schopenhauer proved impervious to packaging.

There is one great problem with majoring in philosophy, and that is that there is the ever-present danger that you will take it too seriously. Philosophy teaches you how to ask questions, but not necessarily how to find answers. Once you get started, it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to know when to stop. This can be a serious problem. Monty Python captured it perfectly.

There are, however, several solutions. Monty Python also provided one such solution. The lyrics of this song were actually posted on the wall in the office of the chairman of the philosophy department at Swarthmore.

And then, of course, there is this scene from A Fish Called Wanda, which has one of my all-time favorite lines about philosophy.

Sometimes I think Jamie Lee Curtis is the one who should have won an Oscar for this movie (Kevin Kline won Best Supporting Actor).

My feelings about philosophy come down to this. Studying philosophy is like driving a Ferrari. 99% of the time, it's either only marginally better than whatever is normal, a complete waste, or actually counterproductive. But that 1% of the time when you can use it for the purpose for which it was intended, there is nothing like it in the world.

Gay marriage - gotta love the visuals!

Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times
Tori and Kate Kuykendall, who have been together five years, inaugurate their new marriage with a kiss. With them at the ceremony in a park in West Hollywood is their 5-month-old daughter, Zadie.

The LA Times has a nice slideshow of gay and lesbian couples getting married on the first full day of legalized gay marriage in California. Gotta love it!

The image above was on the front page of the LA Times this morning. I think it's a good call to post a picture of lesbians as opposed to gay men. One of the great unspoken aspects of this debate is the aesthetic angle. There are a number of objections to gay marriage; religious, cultural, moral. But behind many of those, I suspect, is a simple aversion, on the part of straight men, to men kissing other men. Straight guys do not, of course, mind women kissing other women. No problem there! But guys kissing other guys is just not a pleasant sight for most straight guys. I have to admit that I include myself in this group. As much as I support my gay friends, I find the idea of kissing another guy uncomfortable, even just looking at a picture of guys kissing. Hugging, no problem. Kissing, not a great idea. I'm not sure why that is.

So I hope the LA Times keeps publishing pictures of pretty women in gorgeous gowns kissing.

Lakers don't win

The Lakers did not win the NBA Championship. The other team won. The other team is from a city west of the Rockies and north of the Mason Dixon line. Congrats to the other team. I think it was their year. Of course, we didn't expect the Lakers to even make it to the Finals this year, so that is a moral victory, of sorts.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Charlie Rose on Charlie Rose

From the NY Times, a nicely surreal interview on Charlie Rose. The interview subject is Charlie Rose. I haven't enjoyed an experimental, absurdist video experience in a long time. Over and out, this is Dada.

Gay marriage in California

Marriage between two people of the same sex is now officially legal in the State of California. I didn't think this was going to happen until after Arnold left office, but the California Supreme Court surprised me. The next step is defeating an amendment to the California constitution that will appear on the ballot in November. I am cautiously optimistic. I think the effect of seeing people who are incredibly happy will change some minds. And I'm not even sure that that many minds need to be changed. Some polls that I have seen indicate that a majority of Californians support gay marriage. But it is by no means a sure thing.

Reasons to vote Republican - or maybe not

A few rather interesting reasons to vote for the GOP this year. The content of this short film WAS NOT approved by the Republican National Committee. From HuffPost. The original is on

Well it's about time - Gore endorses Obama

I got email from Al Gore today letting me know that he is endorsing Barack Obama. Al was sending the email through info@barackobama. So it was really through the Obama campaign.

I am of two minds about this. My first thots are, well, that's nice. Good to see Al finally on board.

My second thots are, what the hell took him so long?

OK, that's the extent of my venting and frustration. Obama won without Gore, which is probably good. Gore didn't piss off any Clinton people, and Obama is more of his own man for doing it without Gore.

One nice aspect of this is that it puts Obama in the spotlight for a couple of days in what would otherwise be a dull news session. So points for timing to Gore and the Obama campaign. More points for doing it in Michigan - just like the Edwards endorsement!

All in all a good thing. I'm not going to wax nostalgic about what could have been - who knows if it would have been a good or bad thing? In this case, hindsight is not 20/20. Glad to have you on board, Al!

Patti Solis Doyle joins Obama campaign

From the NY Times, a bit of odd news:
The Obama campaign is about to make its first big hire out of the campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Patti Solis Doyle, who was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign manager until she was ousted in a staff shake up in February, will join Mr. Obama’s campaign as the chief of staff to the vice presidential candidate –
whoever he (or she) will be, campaign officials said.
Kos expresses what has many people has scratching their heads:

This is beyond bizarre. It would certainly be weird to see Doyle as chief of staff of the person who fired her quite publicly just a short while ago. But Doyle and Clinton go way back, so it's plausible.

But it's even weirder for the Obama campaign to hire a chief of staff for a veep candidate who has yet to be chosen and who may have his or her own staff he or she might feel more comfortable working with. This sort of position is too important to impose on the veep nominee without consideration over whether they can work well

So all in all, weird.

Right. I can't figure out an angle on this one, other than hiring a prominent Hispanic woman, and a woman who isvery prominently identified with Hillary.

Ah, I may have figured it out. A post in the comments on reminded me that Doyle and David Axelrod, one of Obama's key people, are old friends from Chicago. Now I get it. So putting her in this job is a great way of bringing her into the campaign, at least for now. And Obama probably won't announce a nomination for VP for a while, so Doyle can stay there until that nominee is chosen. So she's part of the campaign, but not in an essential position. Presumably she will be working closely with Caroline Kennedy. Then, depending on who the VP nominee is, they can either keep her or move her to somewhere else in the campaign.

Makes sense now. Actually quite a brilliant move on the part of the Obama campaign - give her a job, make some peace with Hillary and her supporters, hire a prominent Hispanic woman, but also give her a position that she may not even want in two months. So she'll be able to learn the ropes and all the new faces, and if she does fit, she has time to figure out where. If the VP likes her, she's already there. If not, no one will notice if she finds another job or even leaves the campaign. Perfect solution. Way to go, Obama campaign.

Lakers stay alive!

The Lakers won last night, and are therefore still in the Finals. Whew! That's good news.

This may be a test of my Zero Sum Karma Theory of Professional Sports Championships. The Zero Sum Karma Theory says that there is only so much karma allotted to each city for professional sports championships, so if a city wins one, that city uses up its karma for the year, so there won't be any more championships for that city that year.

The Zero Sum Karma Theory has never been really clearly defined, nor has it ever really been investigated to see if it is historically accurate. So I don't know if it's true or not. For example, the Red Sox won the World Series last year, but that was 2007. This current NBA season started in 2007, so does that count?

I think I'm going to define the Zero Sum Karma Theory by calendar years, i.e. the karma kicks in on January 1 and kicks out on December 31. So, by that standard, since this is a new calendar year, the Red Sox win last year would not count against the Celtics this year. Which is a bummer for the Lakers. But the Lakers still have a chance! Just two more games!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Obama and Family Values

This is the first of what will, I'm sure, be many great speeches on the subject of fathers from our presumptive Democratic nominee for President.

Happy Father's Day from Barack Obama.

Liberals are now officially looking forward to reclaiming "family values" as not a conservative value, or a liberal value, but an American value.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Let us now remember the importance of habeas corpus

The Supreme Court, remembering the importance of its own role in upholding the rule of law, ruled that detainees at Guantanamo Bay have the right of habeas corpus, or the right to challenge their detention in US courts. I'm not a lawyer, but I agree with the ruling as far as I understand it. Also, it apparently displeased George Bush, and that can only be a good thing. David Bromwich sums up the debate and some of the political implications at HuffPost. Barack Obama agreed with the decision.

Obama's statement about the decision is fairly straightforward, pretty much what you expect. But the occasion of this decision got me thinking about Gitmo and constitutional rights generally. One reason that I am optimistic about Obama's campaign, and his presidency in general, is that his background as a constitutional scholar will undoubtedly come in handy. The man taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago. That's one of the best schools in the country, and one of the most conservative. I'm sure Obama will understand the actual constitutional principles at issue very quickly. More importantly, he will figure out how to respond to conservatives in terms of those actual principles.

There are a fair number of people in this country who can read this decision and understand it. Barack Obama is in that group. Of those people, there is a much smaller number, maybe just a handful, who can translate it into layman's terms very easily. Again, Barack Obama is in that group. Having taught constitutional law, he has a lot of experience explaining its principles. And there is an even smaller group who can take that translation into layman's terms and get a crowd fired up over the defense of the Constitution. There is only one person in that last group, and his name is Barack Obama.

Tim Russert 1950-2008

I was at work when I heard that Tim Russert died, just like he was when he died, just like many people were when they heard the news. Friday afternoons are usually a slow time for news, and this moment in history is the calm before the storm, between the primaries and the general election. There is some sweet irony in the fact that Tim Russert, the man who didn't make news himself but nonetheless dominated the news as it was being made, died at a moment that allowed the maximum degree of publicity to be accorded to him. After a long and grueling primary, when he served his country and his profession so well.

I never watched Meet The Press, but I still knew who he was. I think the last time I saw him onscreen was after Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination last week. It was just a few seconds. His face was lit up like a kid in a candy store as he said that he would love to teach history in an inner-city school the next day. You could tell that he was very proud of what America had done by selecting Barack Obama, an African-American man, as the nominee of a major political party.

There are links and tributes all over the blogosphere. I'm just going to link to his professional home, NBC. Thanks, big guy, for everything.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Fox News and the Baby Mama drama

I try not to write too much about Fox News, because I just have very little interest in paying much attention to it. But lately, they seem to be getting themselves in trouble. The latest brouhaha, over the use of the term "Obama's Baby Mama" to describe Michelle Obama, requires a response.

Here's a good description of the problem:
In addition to being insulting, the phrase "baby mama" is also inaccurate. The Urban Dictionary defines "baby mama" as"the mother of your child(ren), whom you did not marry and with whom you are not currently involved."
However, I should note that Fox has apologized. Credit where it is due.

“A producer on the program exercised poor judgment in using this chyron during the segment,” Fox's Senior Vice President of Programming Bill Shine said in a statement to Politico.
I'm a firm believer in applying the principle of innocent until proven guilty, so I try not to pass judgment unless the evidence is clear. But the evidence this time around is strong. This was not a slip of the tongue. Someone had to make a conscious decision to put this on the air. And they clearly thot that they could get away with it. I don't want to try and figure out what the rationale was. I do think, however, that there may be a generational divide:

A Fox staffer said that others internally were bothered by describing the potential first lady and very accomplished women — as the senator's "baby mama."
I'm going to assume that the people who were bothered by this were younger people, who grew up a little more sensitive to these issues. As an Obama supporter, I try to believe in the possibilities of forgiveness and understanding.

What I have not seen mentioned is that Fox seems utterly clueless about the double standard of applying this to a black woman. Would they ever use the term "baby mama" to describe Laura Bush? Or Nancy Reagan? Or Barbara Bush? Or Rosalyn Carter? No.

So here's a suggestion for commentators, conservative or otherwise: if you are wondering about the propriety of using a particular term to describe Barack or Michelle Obama, try to imagine using it to describe Ronald or Nancy Reagan. Then you won't be subjected to damning ridicule.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sullivan and Ambers, #2

Andrew Sullivan and Marc Ambinder had another of their chats at The Atlantic. I critiqued their first one. This one, I am pleased to report, is much better. First, the dialogue is a tad more even, more from both, rather than Sullivan mostly providing his opinions. That's good, although I also enjoyed the first one. It's the difference between an interview and repartee. Also makes more slightly more interesting editing.

The big problem of the production design has been addressed. Much better this time around. First, there is no large blank space behind Ambinder. The pile of books is a good call, adds a bit of visual depth without clutter. The framing of the two of them seems more even as well, to the benefit of both. I also like Sullivan's background, particularly with an Obama item to his left and a book about McCain on his right. Nice touch.

The lighting, however, still needs some work. This is actually slightly worse for Ambinder this time around. Apparently someone is paying more attention to the lighting, but not getting it right. First, there are two colors of light on him; a normal yellowish tint on his face, but then a bright white light from behind. The bright white is very noticeable, and unfortunately ends up highlighting the left side of his face, and his neck just below his ear in a couple of shots. Not a great look.

This bright light behind Ambinder is a contrast to Sullivan, whoses side facing the camera is actually slightly darker than the rest of him. A minor detail, but it could be fixed. The lighting on Sullivan does, however, mix together much better than it does for Ambinder. The lighting seems to change a tad when he leans forward, which I found just the tiniest bit distracting.

As for the content, I agree with Sullivan on the trivial nature of the Jim Johnson mini-mini-mini controversy. It's a couple of days past, and I am already forgetting it. And I even spent a summer living a couple of blocks from the Fannie Mae HQ in DC, so I even have a visual aid when it comes up. One point neither of them brought up: I have been thinking of this issue in terms of "where there's smoke, there's fire." My suspicion is that if it had gone on much longer, someone would have dug up some dirt on Johnson. This way, the world will never know what dirty laundry he might have.

I also agree with Sullivan that it is "disgusting and wrong" to challenge McCain's dedication to the troops. They discuss the fact that there are a number of Democrats - Howard Dean, Rahm Emanuel - whose job it is and will be to take on Republicans, and that Obama can't really control them. On this I disagree, and I would like Obama to be a little more forward on this. Obama has said repeatedly that he respects John McCain's service. However, when there is a news item like this, I think it would be helpful for Obama to make it clear that he does not question McCain's commitment to the troops. A moment or two of grace would be good.

As for the ending: brilliant. Great way to end this segment - just how smart is John McCain? Good question, and now is the time to start answering it. I have been starting to wonder that myself. My guess is that he's smarter than Bush, though of course that's not saying much. But grasp of policy is clearly not his strong suit, and I think that will be a decisive difference between the he and Obama. I seem to recall that McCain graduated 894th out of 899 at Annapolis. Even if he was a partyer, as he has said, a rank that low says something about his natural abilities.

All in all, a marked improvement over the first one, and I am looking forward to the next one, hoping that Ambinder wears a shirt that is something other than white or off-white.

One very minor note about the ad proceeding the discussion: I like the fact that it is from BP, fka British Petroleum, and its American division (, because that captures Sullivan's geography in just a few letters: England and America. Utterly intentional, I'm sure, but somehow appropos. Although it is always a little jarring to try and associate happy music and pleasant graphics with an oil company.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Mr. Johnson, we hardly knew ye

The latest mini-controversy is over a guy I had never heard of before last week, Jim Johnson, one of the key people on Obama's VP search committee. He resigned today after some news about his business dealings. Sounds like he did the right thing. Any kind of connnection to the subprime mess, particularly to Countrywide, is not a good thing. Throw in some time he spent on compensation committees of some large corporations, approving very nice - maybe too nice - pay packages for executives, and the pot started to boil quickly. Obama is walking a fine line, portraying himself as something of a Washington outsider, but also claiming to know how to play the Washington game. The Times captures one aspect of the dilemma:

[T]he loss will carry some costs for the Obama team. The controversy is the latest example of the demonization of so-called Washington insiders, who both profit from the political system and bring irreplaceable experience and insight to it.

I'm sure Obama and his people are aware of the contradictions. I'm sure they are also aware of the fact they will occasionally get caught in these kinds of contradictions.

But notice that Obama moved very quickly. I had never heard of Jim Johnson before this, and I am exceptionally well-informed about these kinds of things. Most Americans will not even notice this. It might make a blip on the evening news, but in a week or two, it will be forgotten. I think Obama handled it well.

Reminding ourselves of the importance of the First Amendment

The NY Times has an article today about a key difference between America and other countries in the developed world (for lack of a better term) on the issue of freedom of speech. America, according to the article, has much stronger protections for freedom of speech than countries such as Canada, Israel, and Germany. I'm not entirely comfortable with the contrasts drawn in this article, because it leaves out large chunks of Europe, specifically the UK and the scandinavian countries. But I do agree with the general idea: In America, the right to freely express yourself is held as a sacred right, and any attempts to restrict it are met with strong resistance, even if the cause is a noble one. That's why "hate crimes" or speech codes at universities, are so controversial.

The article dwells on an article in McLean's, the Canadian newsmagazine. It's odd to think of this from an American perspective, because I immediately think "Well, it's a First Amendment issue," but then I remember that it's not a First Amendment issue, because the American First Amendment does not apply in Canada.

As for why America holds free speech to be so important, the article makes some suggestions:

America’s distinctive approach to free speech, legal scholars say, has many causes. It is partly rooted in an individualistic view of the world. Fear of allowing the government to decide what speech is acceptable plays a role. So does history.

“It would be really hard to criticize Israel, Austria, Germany and South Africa, given their histories,” for laws banning hate speech, Professor Schauer said in an interview.

What the article doesn't explore, probably because it's a newspaper article and the writer doesn't have time, is that the idea of free speech has a much longer tradition in this country than just about any other. It's also much more specific. We forgot how deeply ingrained the Constitution is in our DNA. It is literally our founding document. The idea speech should be free is not an American idea: it is America. America can be defined by many things; geographical boundaries, citizens, its culture, its interests vis-a-vis other countries, but, at its most basic, America is defined by the Constitution.

This is different from other countries. What defines "France" is as much a cultural issue as a legal one. France is a country of hundreds of cheeses, many wines, great artistic traditions, etc. The same can be said of Ireland or England or Germany. Their physical boundaries and legal definitions have been fluid over the centuries.

But in America, all of those are one. The culture of this country is inexplicably tied to its legal definition. Which is tied to its physical definition, its geographical boundaries.

Who can say when France or Sweden was born? There may be a specific date when the current incarnation of the country came into being. But the origins of the cultures are lost in the mists of time.

America's cultural identity has a couple of possible starting points: 1492, when Columbus arrived here; 1620, when the Pilgrims showed up in Massachusetts; the Boston Tea Party. But America's cultural identity gelled into something distinctly "American" at the same time that its political identity was defined: July 4, 1776.

The importance for today and for debates about freedom of speech cannot be understated:
“What we’re learning here is really the bedrock difference between the United States and the countries that are in a broad sense its legal cousins,” Mr. Steyn added. “Western governments are becoming increasingly comfortable with the regulation of opinion. The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world.”

The difference has clear implications:
“Canadians do not have a cast-iron stomach for offensive speech,” Mr. Gratl said in a telephone interview. “We don’t subscribe to a marketplace of ideas. Americans as a whole are more tough-minded and more prepared for verbal combat.”

This is one reason I do not worry too much about "civility" in our public discourse, although I am inspired by Barack Obama's emphasis on this in his campaign, and by his personal example. I try to live up to his example.

This, more than anything, is the importance of the First Amendment; not just that it sets a legal standard, but that the legal standard lays the groundwork for a cultural standard. Even after so many years, we do not automatically accord freedom of speech in every instance. But we do automatically recognize the importance of debating it. It binds us with our fellow citizens, because it binds each of us to the system. If I deny freedom of speech to someone I hate, someone may deny it to me. Each of us therefore has an interest in maintaining the integrity of the system, and each of us has an interest in putting the system ahead of ourselves. That's the genius of the American system: we are bound to the system, and through it, to each other.

Women from the stars, on bikes, in the mountains

Susan Carpenter, my favorite motorcycle reviewer (OK, the only one that I know of), is one of the few people that I read on a consistent basis, despite the fact that I basically have no interest in the subject matter that she writes about. Well, no immediate personal interest. I think motorcycles are cool, as most people do, but I haven't ridden one since I was in high school, running around a friend's northern Michigan acreage on some kind of Honda or Yahama or something. I also like the fact that the LA Times has a woman writing about motorcycles, partially because that makes the LA Times at least a little bit more interesting than almost every other newspaper in the country. If Sam Zell fires her, I will be out for his head.

Today, she doesn't review a cycle per se. She has one column about why two-wheeled vehicles are actually worse for the environment, in some respects, than four-wheeled ones. Something about catalytic converters being too big to be able to fit onto cycles. That's a bummer. But not particularly relevant to me.

Slightly more relevant, but definitely more interesting, she videotaped an interview with two women from Battlestar Galactica about being women motorcycle riders. Gotta love this: women on motorcycles, in the mountains. I would make a crack about two great views in one, but that would be sexist! So I won't.

I would love to be able to share the video with you, but I'm having technical problems embedding it on this blog, so I'll just point you to the video on

I think I missed something by not watching this show.

Memorable metaphor of the day

Dan Neil, the great and wonderful car critic of the LA Times, reviews the Pontiac G8. It's a product of GM's worldwide presence, imported from Australia. My favorite automotive writer shares some colorful impressions of Australia, particularly Foster's, of which, apparently, neither he nor Australians approve:
Foster's makes Pabst Blue Ribbon seem like the scintillating golden cataract from Bacchus' boundless fountain.
I think Mexicans have the same opinion of Corona. This is a good review, fun as always, but Neil is at his best either praising automotive excess and genius, or damning and shredding garbage dressed up in sheet metal. He is also at his best when throwing out a metaphor that just would not occur to a less-talented writer:
I noted today, while I was standing at the pump putting $4.85-a-gallon hi-test in the galling muscle car, that I kind of felt like a guy standing at an ATM next to a bordello. The reek of monetized sin was upon me.
I am going to have trouble getting that image out of my head the next time I pump gas for $4.85 a gallon. Bottom line on this review? Good car, not great, a little late:
It would be a shoo-in for Car of the Year, if the year were 2005.
So the conclusion that we can draw today is that Australian products that wrap metal around leather and plastic and cost thousands of dollars are good, but Australian products that wrap metal around generic yeast-modified water are not so good.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bush Admin cracking down on illegal workers

From the NY Times, we learn today that the Bush Administration is cracking down on illegal workers by requiring federal contractors to verify that their employees are legally allowed to work in this country.
President Bush has ordered federal contractors to participate in the Department of Homeland Security’s electronic system for verifying the immigration status of their workers, greatly expanding the reach of the administration’s crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
Naturally, this is not that popular with employers.
The order expands the E-Verify program, which has been the target of criticism and lawsuits by employers’ groups and advocates for immigrants who say the Social Security database it draws upon to check workers’ status is riddled with errors that could lead to legal workers’ being fired or rejected for employment.
It's funny, I have long been under the impression that one of the basic, bedrock principles of conservatism is that excessive governmental regulation of business is bad, and that conservative politicians should either minimize the amount of regulation that is imposed on business, and, ideally, remove as much regulation as possible. But here we have a conservative Republican president imposing highly onerous regulations on many businesses. Health, safety, and environmental regulations restrict a business' freedom and impose costs, but those also have clear benefits. This kind of regulation does not have an immediate benefit, and places restrictions not just on how a business conducts its operations, but on the even more fundamental issue of who it can hire. That's going to have a seriously negative impact on many business' competitive advantage.

Oh, the irony. I'm just waiting for Democrats to start hammering home this point: Republicans are now the ones imposing excessive regulatory burdens on businesses.

That "terrorist fist-jab"

In this campaign, one quote keeps running through my mind. From Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock,"
"What mighty contests rise from trivial things"
I swear, one of these days we are going to hear about somebody finding something ominous and potentially terrifying and unAmerican in the way Barack Obama crosses the street. We currently have a mini-controversy (or mini-mini-mini-controversy) about how Michelle and Barack did a fist pound last Tuesday, as they embraced on stage. Seriously. Someone on Fox News, apparently completely unaware of any recent developments in American culture, went on the air to wonder if this was a "terrorist jab." Joe Scarborough, who is a former Republican representative in Congress, had a great deal of fun with this on his show on MSNBC. This is how ridiculous it's getting - a former Republican is making fun of Fox News.

Go to this page on HuffPost to watch the video on Morning Joe. It even has Ali G interviewing Pat Buchanan. God bless competition among news programs. Every now and then idiots are made to look like idiots.