Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs, an appreciation

I first started using Macs when I was in college. Macs were brand new. My family had had an Apple IIe (I think that was the model), but I never used it much. I remember my Dad being amazed that we had upgraded all the way to 64k of memory. But the screen was the classic green screen, and you couldn't do much more than type. But you could do lots of stuff with a Mac.

I wrote a paper in college about James Joyce's Ulysses. I argued that Joyce had achieved in literature what Einstein had achieved in physics. One of Einstein's great insights was that space and time were not separate, but were part of a continuum. Joyce, I wrote, understood form and content the same way. They are not separate, but part of a continuum. The (possibly pretentious) way that I put it was that form is infinitely refined content, and content is infinitely refined form. I'm not sure I could explain that today as well as I did then, so you're going to have to trust me on this one.

Part of Steve Jobs' genius is that he understood the relationship between art and technology in the same terms. Most people think of design and engineering as separate; Jobs understood that they are not just inextricably linked, but inseparable, and one informs the other. It's easy to design a machine without thinking about it's design; it's easy to design a machine without worrying about how well it works. It's very difficult to combine both. But, as Jobs understood, it's worth it. And because it's so hard, it's important to do it really, really well. Steve Jobs was not just a perfectionist because he wanted to be one; he was a perfectionist because he had to be one.

But it wasn't just art and technology that he understood as being parts of a continuum. He had the same understanding of art and commerce. The fact that Apple products are visually appealing isn't just a nice side effect of good design; that is part of what makes them useful. It's really easy to use an iPhone. The concept of a "user-friendly" computer was revolutionary in 1984. That simplicity is both aesthetically pleasing and technologically empowering. Again, that combination is very hard to pull off, but also worth it. And worth high prices. It's not just a nice idea to make something that beautiful that people also like using - it's a great business model.

Finally, this idea - that art and technology combine to make great products that are worth their price - is what drives Steve Jobs' other great contribution to American culture, Pixar. It's very technologically challenging to make a Pixar movie. But the fact that it's so technically difficult also means that the story has to be just as good, to justify the cost. Computer animation is nice to look at, but the charm of the images won't get enough people in theaters. Just like Apple, the perfectionism at Pixar isn't there just because the people there are neurotic obsessives. They're perfectionists because, like Steve Jobs, they have to be.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sarah Palin's Presidential Ambitions

Will Sarah Palin run for President? That's one of the most intriguing questions in politics today.

Here's my definitive, unequivocal answer: yes and no.

Actually, that's my definitive, unequivocal answer to the question: "Does Sarah Palin want to be president?"

To understand Sarah Palin's presidential ambitions, it's important to understand two things:

1. Sarah Palin does not want the problems and headaches that come with being president of the United States. She doesn't want to have to make tough decisions. She doesn't like being held to a strict schedule. She doesn't have a lot of personal discipline.

2. Sarah Palin is really, really ambitious, and loves the fame, power, glory and, most of all, the attention that would come with being president.

Sarah Palin wants to be famous, and loves having lots of adoring fans. She would love nothing more than almost being president.

Consider how well the 2008 campaign worked out for her. She spent two months flying around the country on someone else's dime, rallying the troops, and establishing her brand. She didn't have to make a single difficult policy decision. The fact that McCain failed was largely laid at his feet. So Palin got lots of attention with very little responsibility. She would have loved being vice president. Vice presidents don't do much. Talk about a job with glory, attention and power, but very little responsibility.

Almost all politicians in a democracy - Democrat and Republican - understand that politics in a democracy is about enlightened self-interest. You have to be able to cooperate with people who disagree with you - at least occasionally - as well as compete with them. But that only applies if you want to accomplish something within the legislative system. Sarah Palin has zero interest in passing legislation. She therefore has zero interest in cooperating with people who disagree with her, and every intention of simply competing with them - or just criticizing them. She doesn't just have no interest in cooperating with Democrats who disagree with her. She also has no interest in cooperating with Republicans who disagree with her. This is unfortunate for most other establishment Washington Republican politicians, because it means that the day may come when acting in her own best self-interest means acting in a way that is contrary to the best interests of the party. Which she will do without hesitation.

The 2012 campaign presents her with a conundrum: she doesn't really want to win, but she wants all of the attention that she would get from a presidential campaign. Her ideal 2012 experience would be for her to campaign vigorously for president, and then lose in the primaries in a way that allows her to blame the Washington establishment for her failure. Her problem is that the person with the best chance of serving as her foil is Mitt Romney, who is a weak candidate.

But her solution is simplicity itself. All she has to do is be herself, because she will inspire her fans, continue to piss off Democrats of all stripes, and alienate independents and moderate Republicans. Traditional presidential campaign theory says that candidates must campaign in the primaries to win over the base, but be prepared to move to the center in the general election. But because Sarah Palin has no interest in winning the general election, she has no interest in preparing to move to the center. She can do whatever she wants to stir up her base, because that's all she wants to do. If she keeps her fans' fires of devotion going, but alienates enough centrist/mainstream/moderate Republicans that she doesn't get the nomination, she still comes out ahead. If she does ultimately get the nomination, she can continue to inspire her most loyal followers without worrying about convincing any moderates or Democrats to vote for her, because she ultimately doesn't really want to be elected president. We're talking about a woman who would love nothing more than to have yet more reasons to claim being a martyr.

Sarah Palin doesn't even really care whether or not the GOP wins the presidential election. She might even prefer Obama winning a second term, because it gives her a perfect foil. If Romney is elected, she can stay on the sidelines and be critical of him if she doesn't consider him conservative enough. But eventually most Republicans would get tired of her. But if Obama wins, she can keep presenting herself as channeling the base's frustrations.

What's wonderfully, deliciously ironic about this - at least from the perspective of a liberal Democrat - is that Sarah Palin is the perfect embodiment of conservative Republican capitalist ideology. She is motivated entirely by her own self-interest.

But it's also unfortunate for Sarah Palin, because, while none of those Washington Republicans are as good looking as her, many of them are smarter than her. And there are lots of them. And they have lots and lots and lots of money. Sarah Palin can keep this charade going unless, at some point, she makes a complete and utter fool of herself. At that point, the likes of Karl Rove might be able to diminish her influence on the party; they might be able to contain the damage she does in the future. But at that point, the damage to the GOP will have been done.

And Sarah Palin will have millions in the bank.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama, Israel, and the Arab Spring

So I watched Obama's speech on the Middle East. Many commentators seem to have focused on his comments on Israel, bluntly making it clear that the US favors a two-state solution. Nothing terribly unusual there; it's been clear for a while that will be required for a solution to this problem. He also spoke at length about the Arab Spring, and the hopes for democratic change. Again, doesn't seem very far out of the norm for a speech by an American president. Republicans, of course, attacked him for allegedly bailing on Israel. Part of this is appealing to hardline Israelis, hard of this is appealing to conservative Christians, and part of this is just a need on their part to attack Obama. More of the same.

But I haven't seen any commentary (although it's entirely possible that I missed it) on how the Arab Spring has completely changed the calculus in the Mideast, and how Obama grasps the importance of that. The Israeli-Palestinian issue has seemed intractable; both sides are dug in, neither trusts the other, and neither seems willing to compromise. But the Arab Spring has changed the debate, because it relieves a great deal of pressure on the Arab side of the equation. Corrupt Arab dictators have used Israel as a distraction; they've demagogued about Jews as a way of distracting their people from their own failings as leaders. The fact that many of them have access to oil wealth as a means of bribing their populations into complacency has, of course, been a big help.

But, as Lincoln said, you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Some of the countries undergoing transformation in the Mideast will become stable, secure democracies. Some won't. Some may very well see one dictatorship replaced with another. The best historical precedent that I can think of is what happened in with the dissolution of the Soviet empire in 1989. East Germany was absorbed into West Germany, and the Central European states are free, while some in the Caucasus are not. The same will probably be the case in the Arab world; some countries will make a successful transition to democracy, some won't.

But those that do, it can be reasonably hoped, will flourish. And with that flourishing will come, again it is to be reasonably hoped, a lessening of the pressure to blame Israel and the Jews for the problems of Arabs. It won't be easy, but it's been done before.

Netanyahu and his Republicans allies don't see things this way. Hardline Israelis, at this point, just don't have a lot of faith in the ability of Arabs to become peace-loving neighbors. It's not hard to understand why they think that. But it's also not hard to understand that they can not afford to think that very much longer. Likud will be very reluctant to negotiate. And, of course, there are more than a few Jews in Israel who believe that the land is there by divine right. There are also a fair number of fundamentalist Christians and Jews in this country who agree with that. In this respect, the interests of conservative Israelis and conservatives Republicans are aligned.

Their interests are also aligned in the sense that they want to see Obama fail. In Netanyahu's ideal world, a Republican wins in 2012, and he gets to spend another few years resisting pressure from around the world to compromise on a two-state solution.

But a key difference between Netanyahu and Republicans is that Bibi isn't stupid, and he doesn't have a fallback option. If Mitt Romney doesn't become president, he'll still be a rich, comfortable American. What is at stake for Netanyahu is the survival of the state of Israel. Republicans don't mind a state of permanent war; it keeps the defense contractors happy. Israelis know that, ultimately, it is not sustainable. But right now, they are also scared that, if they give an inch, the Arabs, like Hamas, will take full advantage of their weaknesses, and destroy them. This is why the Arab Spring is so important: it provides a glimmer of hope that peace may, in fact, be a viable option. Hardline Israelis are still very skeptical of this, for very good reason. But the whole point of Obama's speech was to take that tiny flowering of hope, that smidgen of optimism, and make it grow. That is, after all, his specialty.

Obama and Netanyahu do not like each other, and they don't really trust each other. But they do respect each other. Each is a very smart man, and each is a brilliant politician. The key difference between Netanyahu and his Republican allies is that Netanyahu, in the long run, doesn't care whether or not Obama is reelected. But he does care a great deal the survival of the state of Israel, and he knows that peace is required for that. Republicans also want the survival of the state of Israel, but they also prefer a mindset that encourages Americans to be afraid of terrorists, so the Pentagon budget stays at its absurd levels. But what is most important to Republicans is delegitimizing Obama. If Obama can convince Netanyahu that he can at least make progress towards peace, he can split Likud and the Republicans. It won't be a wide split, but Obama can make it clear that their interests are not as solidly aligned as it seems they are today. Besides, Obama also knows that there are lots of American Jews - most, actually - who are liberal Democrats, and therefore agree with him. Part of the purpose of his speech was to mobilize them to be on his side. Obama has a chance of convincing Netanyahu to work with him, because Netanyahu respects Obama's political abilities. Obama's chief of staff was a Jew from Chicago. Rahm Emanuel is one of the toughest politicians in America, and he worked for Obama. Many Republicans look at Obama and see an effete liberal intellectual. Netanyahu does not make that mistake.

The possibility of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians seems almost impossible to achieve. But a year ago, if you had said to anyone in the world that Hosni Mubarak would be overthrown by mobs in the streets of Cairo, you would have been laughed at. And if, in 2003 you had said that a black guy with a Muslim name who was an obscure state senator in Illinois would become president of the United States in 2008, every single person in the world would have thought you were crazy.

Every single person in the world except for two: Barack Obama. And Michelle Obama.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Obama: The Anti-Reagan

I haven't posted here in a long, long time, but a friend texted me that Obama is losing him. Time to get back on it.

Obama is the anti-Reagan. The superficial contrasts are obvious, apart from the skin color; Obama is a young president; Reagan was our oldest. Reagan came from the heartland, Obama literally from the geographical fringe of the country. Reagan was a movie star; Obama is a policy wonk. Reagan had a long history with both America and the conservative movement long before he became president; Obama sprang into Democrat consciousness literally overnight with one speech. They had similar family backgrounds, both from dysfunctional or non-traditional families of modest means. But where Reagan was divorced and a famously distant father, Obama is a devoted family man, with zero skeletons in his closet.

It is on policy political strategies where the differences are, of course, most important. The policy differences are obvious, although the argument could be made that Obama shifted closer to Reagan after he was elected. On the other hand, just about any president could be accused of changing in ways that make their constituencies uncomfortable.

But what was gone unnoticed and unremarked - probably because it's very difficult to tell - are the stylistic and strategic differences. Both, of course, are excellent public speakers, but the similarity basically ends there. Reagan had three basic beliefs: lower taxes, smaller government, and a strong defense. He believed in capitalism and the basic goodness of the American people. That was pretty much it.

Obama's political philosophy cannot, on the other hand, be reduced to a slogan, and he's barely tried to do so. He believes in the broad spectrum of liberal ideas; feminism, civil rights, gay rights, empowering the poor, protecting the environment, etc. The closest he's come to a tag line of late is "Winning The Future," which translates into a very poor choice of acronym, and which seems to be fading quickly. In 2008, he was all about hope and change, the epitome of nebulous campaign promises. It's hard to pin Obama down to specifics, either in terms of policy or even tenets of his ideology. Many of his supporters are uncomfortable with this, because it looks like he's waffling, or not making a commitment, or compromising too early or too often.

The other great contrast between Reagan and Obama is in terms of political strategy. Reagan would outline a basic goal, give uplifting but vague speeches, challenge his opponents directly, and refuse to compromise. But then he would compromise at the last minute, declare victory, and move on, so it looked like he won. This is one reason conservatives idolize him. They buy into the myth that he was a rigid ideologue, when he was also very much a realistic, pragmatic politician.

Obama is famously willing to compromise, and constantly reaching out to his political opponents, trying hard to reach consensus, broker deals, make sure everyone is involved in the process. Again, many of his supporters are uncomfortable with this approach, because it looks like he's compromising when he doesn't have to, or he's letting his opponents dictate parts of the agenda.

But the most important difference between Reagan and Obama - and this is where Obama beats Reagan, hands down - is that Obama is an absolutely masterful political tactician. Obama is very good at seeing the big picture politically, and defining a successful strategy. Hillary Clinton learned this too late - the 2008 campaign was a great strategic success. Obama and his team mapped out how they were going to win, followed the plan, and won.

But what is almost impossible for the public to see is how good Obama is with political tactics. His work on gay rights is the best illustration of this. He campaigned on ending the ban on gays serving in the military. For a long time, it looked like he wasn't doing much to advance that cause, and his supporters were grumbling. He had set up a commission to look into it, and the commission was set to issue its report in early December, 2010. That would be after the election, but before the new Congress took office. The results of the commission's study therefore would not be released in time to be an issue in the election, but they would be released in time for Congress to act on them.

I don't remember exactly how repealing the ban went down. It happened between Christmas and New Year's, when the American public is not paying much attention to politics. There was some kind of parliamentary maneuvering going on, but the Democrats got enough Republicans on board to make it happen. I think some of the Republicans who voted for it were about to retire, so they could "vote their conscience." I seem to recall Joe Lieberman being a strong advocate of it.

I have roughly the same perspective on his actions on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). There isn't much Obama can do on this. It's not going to be repealed by Congress any time soon. Obama's position on gay marriage is "evolving," which is a very politically convenient way of not making a commitment for it, but not rejecting it either. That may even be true. But it's a classic politician's finesse - he doesn't want to piss of his gay supporters by coming out (sorry, couldn't resist) against gay marriage, but he's also aware that there are many independents and conservatives who are strongly against it. So he had his Attorney General come out with a hair-splitting position - the Dept. of Justice will not defend part of it in court, but they will continue to enforce it. I'm not quite sure how it works, and I work for a law firm.

It's all very confusing.

Which is exactly the point.

The fact that these processes - of repealing the ban on gays in the military, and challenging DOMA - were confusing is part of Obama's political strategy. Republicans had a hard time finding a point to challenge repealing the ban on gays in the military, other than the vote itself - which took place at the end of a lame duck session. Who would argue against a commission set up to study the issue? Now that the law has been passed, the Pentagon still has to draw up plans for implementation. Once it's official, most gay members of the military will probably come out slowly. The whole process is long, drawn out, and involved lots of people besides Obama himself - Bob Gates at the Pentagon, Harry Reid in the Senate. It's an incendiary issue, but Obama's process - long, bureaucratic, mostly behind the scenes - obscured the opportunities for heated rhetoric, and therefore diffused the anger. There is time between when the debate happened, when the law passed, and when it's implemented, giving the American people time to adjust to the issue.

But homosexuals in the military will be a fact of life by November 2012, and Barack Obama will take the lion's share of the credit. He'll tell his gay supporters that he delivered on a key campaign promise.

We see the same thing in DOMA. Obama's DOJ is not defending it, but is enforcing it. The DOJ informed Congress that it could DOMA in court if it wanted to, but that, of courses, puts the pressure to do so on John Boehner. I can barely follow it, and I work for a law firm. But it's a win-win for Obama. If DOMA is partially overturned, he will declare victory, but claim that it was a decision by a court. If he doesn't win, he can claim that he tried, but that it's either the fault of Republicans, or a court. Tactically, it's great. But it's very difficult to understand unless you are a hardcore political geek.

One problem with this approach is that while it confuses his opponents, it also confuses his supporters, even those who are smart and fairly politically savvy, like Matt Damon and other celebrities. This article explains why he and other celebrities are disillusioned. Unfortunately for both Obama and his supporters, it's in the media's best interest to play up how disappointed Obama fans are. But this particular article is both incredibly sloppy and clearly intent on playing up the disappointment. The picture of Matt Damon shows him scowling, to accentuate the point that he's unhappy. But the wall on the background reads "TIFF," or Toronto International Film Festival. That takes place in September. Since then, Matt Damon has been nominated for an Oscar, and photographed dozens, if not hundreds, of times. He's generally a very upbeat guy. But they somehow managed to find a picture of him looking unhappy.

Barbra Streisand is quoted as being unhappy that Obama didn't use executive privilege to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. The quote is from some time "in December," i.e. before Congress repealed it. I think we can safely assume that Barbra Streisand is now happy with Obama's strategy to repeal DADT given that THE STRATEGY ACTUALLY FRICKIN' WORKED. Matt Damon is not happy about testing kids in schools. Neither am I, but that's a product of the Bush administration, and Obama has not been able to undo it. Jane Lynch is disappointed that Obama has not been able to do anything about gay marriage. The quote from her is from early January, again, well before Obama ACTUALLY DID SOMETHING ABOUT GAY MARRIAGE.

Other celebrities who are unhappy with Obama about a particular issue include Hugh Hefner, Spike Lee, and Robert Redford. You know what? Give me 10 minutes, and I can find a whole bunch of celebrities who are unhappy with Obama. There were lots of liberals unhappy with Clinton. Lots of conservatives grumbled about Reagan. That's the nature of politics. As someone (I think Maria Cuomo) said, you campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose. The nuts and bolts of actually governing are always less exciting, and infinitely more frustrating, than the campaign. Obama waits a long time to move before he does so. But in the process, he's refining his plans and laying the groundwork. Which is difficult, if not impossible to see. But absolutely necessary.

What's the best possible evidence that Obama moves quickly? This is a man who went from being an Illinois state senator to being president of the United States in four years.

There is one more similarity between Obama and Reagan: both of them were seriously underestimated by their opponents. And, occasionally, their supporters.