Serving the will of Tommy Westphall since 2004.

escoles's blog

The 28th Amendment to the Constitution (draft form)

James Fallows has a proposition for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution:

"No Person shall be elected President or Vice President without accepting a session of questioning by the press, such session to last no less than one hour and to be open to normally accredited members of the press in the same fashion as at Presidential news conferences. The questioning shall occur and the results shall be made freely available to the public at least one week before an Election is held."

Makes sense to me! I mean, if a candidate is so terrified of press scrutiny that they'll work so that hard to dodge it, then gosh darnit how do we know they don't have something hidden that we damn well ought to know about? Kinda makes ya wonder, who the heck is this Sarah Palin?

[via Andrew Sullivan]


Of course it's not about race!

From Salon, crystallizing the essence of creating a racist subtext (and burying the lede on page 2):

Which is why the real point of the ad may have been the image of the smirking black man who appears as the poster child for "CEO rip-offs." The man is Franklin Raines, former head of Fannie Mae, who resigned in 2004 under a cloud of scandal. It may seem odd that McCain's hit team selected a black CEO to illustrate the Wall Street meltdown -- there are about as many black CEOs as there are white defensive backs in the NFL.

Project Much?

Josh Marshall quotes one of his readers regarding John McCain's New Mexico speech from yesterday:

What a weird spectacle McCain's speech was this afternoon. It was as though McCain went out of the way to take every criticism that has come his way and attribute it to Barack Obama. In addition to being jarringly at odds with reality, it also seemed to undermine the larger questions that the campaign seems to want to be raising.

My wife said much the same thing. And it seems so obvious. The now-infamous Des Moines Register video shows a man so unable to master himself that he fairly seethes with anger -- so much so that the Register, a reputable if socially liberal newspaper, felt it appropriate to publish an op-ed on the topic as it related to McCain's suitability for Presidential office:

John McCain is angry.

You can feel it in the clenched muscles in his throat, the narrowing of his eyes, the controlled tone with which he handles a question he doesn't like, as if struggling to contain something that might spill out. We've seen that body language on TV. But around a Des Moines Register table Tuesday, the anger and tension were palpable. And unsettling.

The thing that bothers me a little is that in my experience, this kind of projection -- calling your opponent out for what you're doing -- usually works. People assume that no one would get that angry without good reason, especially if you've established a reputation for moralism and integrity.

The one hope is that McCain has indeed damaged his brand so badly that he has no reputation left to ground that impression in. (Discounting the "base", of course. The Republican base is rabid with frustrated fury by this time -- witness the un-corrected shout of "kill him" at a Palin rally over the weekend, or "terrorist!" in response to McCain's rhetorical question 'Who is the real Barack Obama?')

OODA Loops, Redux

I realize I didn't properly close out my comments on Steve Schmidt's OODA strategy. I was trying to convey the idea that force can be multiplied by technology: Schmidt could effectively pivot from one front to another instantaneously. It's analogous to a boxer facing an opponent who can't hit him hard enough for a knockout, but who can land small blows at will in lots of different places.

The point I wanted to make, but didn't, was that the weaker fighter can only win in this way if he's not so weak that his blows do no harm. Whether that's true remains to be seen, and it hinges largely on whether Nate Silver's insight on the nature of the Minnesota "outlier" poll is accurate. 

In any case, it's still unclear that's what Schmidt is doing. Whether he's trying to employ that kind of rapidly-shifting media buy is something that will become clear in the next few days. For it to really work with only 4 weeks remaining, I think he'd have to be shifting his buys just every few days, not once a week.

Disingenuous Question for the Moment

Byron York asks an interesting, if profoundly disingenuous question:

Let’s assume that FactCheck’s analysis is correct. Why shouldn’t McCain and Palin use the new, supposedly more accurate, numbers? When Palin said in St. Louis last week that Obama “had 94 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction” — well, why not change it to “had 54 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 54 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction”? Wouldn’t that still be a damning critique of Obama’s stance on taxes?

Indeed, it might (but probably wouldn't*) be, if they would actually do that. What's curious and interesting is that they haven't.

It suggests to me that truth isn't actually what's important to them. And it must not be that important to York, either, since he doesn't deign to provide the obvious answer to his own question....

*Probably wouldn't be, because York's own stance on taxes is so remarkably silly.

Campaigns and OODA Loops

One of the things that's fascinating about the current campaign is the contrast in what you might call theory of battle. Eisenhower famously referenced an old West Point maxim when he remarked that plans themselves weren't worth a lot once the battle starts, but the act of having planned is invariably invaluable.

Which is another way of saying that while strategy may have to change, you're at a tactical disadvantage if you've never thought about your strategy.

The short version of the differences between the McCain and Obama campaigns seems to me to be that McCain is all about tactics, and Obama is all about strategy. (That could be why generals seem to prefer Obama.) That's consistent with their formative experiences: McCain, the fighter pilot, is conditioned (not to mention temperamentally disposed) to act quickly and without thought, because that's how you save your own life in the high-speed world of jet-powered air combat. Obama, the community organizer, is conditioned (and, again, temperamentally disposed) to act and think strategically, with a longer view in mind, because that's what community building is all about at a very fundamental level.

Which brings me to the OODA Loop. Like many important concepts, it can be seen as a new skin on old wine. John Boyd coined the term as a way to describe tactical response in precise terms. "OODA" unpacks to "Observe, Orient, Decide and Act." It's a superficially tactical concept, and apparently John McCain's campaign manager is a big fan:

John McCain's campaign director, the sort of Karl Rove acolyte who doesn't like that notion, though he ran the Bush/Cheney war room in 2004, who I know very well from his turnaround management of Arnold Schwarzenegger's landslide 2006 re-election as California's governor. He is the national political equivalent -- at least in this crazy race -- of the NFL coach Mike Martz. "Mad Mike," as he's known, was the master of the hurry-up-offense and the trick play as the coach of the "Greatest Show On Turf," the famed St. Louis Rams offense of the late '90s and early part of this decade. I won't bore you with football talk, or the details of what actually underlies what Schmidt is up to -- something I discussed with him at length two years ago called "the Boyd Cycle," a theory of warfare developed by retired Air Force Colonel John Boyd that is focused on a series of very rapid analyses and disorienting moves-- but suffice it to say that McCain was dead in the water when Schmidt took over three months ago and then bedeviled Obama constantly until the present financial fiasco. The one other thing I'll say about the Mike Martz offense is that all its inherent risk-taking allows an aggressive opponent to sack the quarterback on a regular basis.

For what it's worth, I think Rove himself has an excellent understanding of strategy with a small 's', though perhaps he's a bit weak on what military and diplomatic thinkers refer to as "grand strategy." (I mean, if you sacrifice your future standing for results in the short term, shouldn't you expect to get defeated once your enemy figures out the dimensions of your OODA loop?) But I digress.

Nate Silver at recently offered his analysis of some strangeness in a Minnesota tracking poll

But what's going on with Minnesota -- where SurveyUSA actually gives McCain a one-point lead?

The poll may be a mild outlier. SurveyUSA has generally shown more favorable numbers for John McCain in Minnesota than other agencies that have surveyed the state. But they aren't the only pollster to come up with numbers like this; Quinnipiac and the Star Tribune also show Minnesota close, although CNN and Rasmussen don't.

Markos Moulitsas has data on advertising expenditures that may explain the difference. Overall, in the week ended 9/30, Obama spent about 2.5x as much as John McCain on advertising. This is likely an underappreciated reason behind his recent polling surge. But in Minnesota, McCain outadvertised Obama better than 3:1. In fact, Minnesota was the only state in the entire country where McCain out-advertised Obama.

So McCain may literally have bought his way into a competitive race in Minnesota. It now rates as the 7th most important state in the election according to our tipping point metric, behind the traditional Big Three (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida), the New Two (Colorado, Virginia), and Michigan, which should probably now be scratched off the list.

It hasn't come cheaply, however, as McCain has now spent tens of millions of dollars on the state -- money that didn't go into Florida, or North Carolina, or Indiana, or Virginia, where Obama has had the advertising edge, and where the McCain campaign is now on its heels. Those are also resources that didn't go into Michigan, where McCain has withdrawn from.

So, yes, you can beat a state into submission if you really want to -- I mean, if Obama decided he really wanted to win South Dakota, he could probably do so. But whether it's been a good use of resources, we will have to see.

In certain ways, this is starting to remind one a lot of the Herschel Walker trade. And Obama campaign is not exactly unready, leading McCain in field offices in Minnesota 28 to 9.

This got me thinking: What would I do if I were running short of money and were down in the polls against an opponent with a superior operation in every location where I face him? I'd take advantage of technical advances in media buying to perform saturation attacks on random fronts. I'd reallocate my resources on the fly: What's hitting them this week in Minnesota can hit them next week in Florida and the week after in South Carolina or Ohio. Presumably the impressions I create this week will linger a while; I don't have to reinforce them continuously, as long as I get back and reinforce them at some point.

I'd also hope that in taking that kind of a strategy, I'd be able to distract the strategic brain long enough that I'd have a chance to get them off balance: Get inside their OODA loop, so to speak.

Arguably, Schmidt had the Obama camp on their heels after the Palin nomination because they got inside their loop. So it might work again. But in trying to rattle them, he's trying to rattle one of the most well-run campaign organizations that political actors can remember seeing. This is an organization that has functioned and functioned well on a fifty-state front. It's the first time since before Nixon that anyone has tried a fift-state strategy.

That we owe not to Obama, though, but to Howard Dean. I wonder if history will remember him for it. I also wonder if he'll care.


So, it looks like the plan is to attack Biden

So it's looking like the Palin Plan will be to attack Biden rather than 'going to the top of the ticket', as most pundits have predicted, and then rely on spin to cast any counter-attack as bullying.

That makes sense, attacking is what she's good at. But I have to wonder if the tactical decision isn't based on the (profoundly flawed) premise that Biden will be vilified if he fights back. Let's remember that he was smart enough to figure out the game in the first place, and articulate enough to describe it in a way that got through to people. There's a good chance he's also going to be clever enough to pivot and fight back without looking like a bully. It's actually not that hard if you can hold your temper and keep smiling.

It could be as simple as acknowledging that "Yes, Senator Obama and I have had differences in the past, but so have you and Senator McCain. Why, you yourself hired a lobbyist to obtain earmarks for the town of Wasilla, and campaigned on support for the Bridge to Nowhere! So I'm sure you understand what it's like to have to change your talking points."

Past Debate Performance as an Indicator of Future Success

The NYT has a piece up now discussing Sarah Palin's gubernatorial debates. They point out that she didn't do too badly -- she could arguably be called a natural:

Her debating style was rarely confrontational, and she appeared confident. In contrast to today, when she seems unversed on several important issues, she demonstrated fluency on certain subjects, particularly oil and gas development.

But just as she does now, Ms. Palin often spoke in generalities and showed scant aptitude for developing arguments beyond a talking point or two. Her sentences were distinguished by their repetition of words, by the use of the phrase “here in Alaska” and for gaps. On paper, her sentences would have been difficult to diagram.

That reminded me of something James Fallows wrote in 2004:

This spring I watched dozens of hours' worth of old videos of John Kerry and George W. Bush in action. But it was the hour in which Bush faced Ann Richards that I had to watch several times. The Bush on this tape was almost unrecognizable—and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the White House. He was younger, thinner, with much darker hair and a more eager yet less swaggering carriage than he has now. But the real difference was the way he sounded.

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two ("million" when he clearly meant "billion"; "stole" when he meant "sold"), but fewer than most people would in an hour's debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. "To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.

[Couldn't get a more direct source for this...]

The obvious key difference is that Bush performed legitimately well against Richards, speaking clearly and more or less eloquently and more to the point, on point. The point about Palin seems to be that (as a former opponent observes) she's a gifted bullshit artist:

Palin is a master of the nonanswer. She can turn a 60-second response to a query about her specific solutions to healthcare challenges into a folksy story about how she's met people on the campaign trail who face healthcare challenges. All without uttering a word about her public-policy solutions to healthcare challenges.

In one debate, a moderator asked the candidates to name a bill the legislature had recently passed that we didn't like. I named one. Democratic candidate Tony Knowles named one. But Sarah Palin instead used her allotted time to criticize the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski. Asked to name a bill we did like, the same pattern emerged: Palin didn't name a bill.

And when she does answer the actual question asked, she has a canny ability to connect with the audience on a personal level. For example, asked to name a major issue that had been ignored during the campaign, I discussed the health of local communities, Mr. Knowles talked about affordable healthcare, and Palin talked about ... the need to protect hunting and fishing rights.

So what does that mean for Biden? With shorter question-and-answer times and limited interaction between the two, he should simply ignore Palin in a respectful manner on the stage and answer the questions as though he were alone. Any attempt to flex his public-policy knowledge and show Palin is not ready for prime time will inevitably cast him in the role of the bully.

On the other side of the stage, if Palin is to be successful, she needs to do what she does best: fill the room with her presence and stick to the scripted sound bites.

I keep coming back to Fallows, though. 

I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape [of the Bush-Richards debate]—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications. When I invited him to watch the Bush-Richards tape, Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different. His choice of words, the pace of his speech, the length and completeness of his sentences, all made him sound like another person. Even his body language was surprising. When he was younger, Bush leaned toward the camera and did not fidget or shift his weight. He arched his eyebrows and positioned his mouth in a way that, according to Lakoff, signifies in all languages an intense, engaged form of speech.

Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same. Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism, had all worked against Ann Richards. These have been constants in his rhetorical presentation of himself over the years, despite the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills, and they have been consistently and devastatingly effective. The upcoming debates between Bush and Kerry will in an odd way be a contest of unbeaten champions.

To me this speaks to two possibilities: One, that Sarah Palin may have left behind aspects of the sweet-faced barracuda who artfully bullshitted Alaska voters. Two, that her essential nature might remain intact. We'll see how that plays out tonight.  

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Your Mother's Name, Redux

Bruce Schneier, Ed Felten and Steve Ragan all had reactions similar to mine regarding Sarah Palin's email account. As might be expected, the folks posting in Schneier's comment thread were even more hard-core: Most suggested just using a secure password (something like "18D*F9afgsk*", maybe) in place of an answer. But Ragan had what I thought was the most interesting and useful extension to my own practice:


If you can pick you own question and answer, then that is the best bet. Make the question and answer something that no one knows, and that would never appear on a personal blog, Facebook or MySpace profile, or outside a close circle of family and friends.

For example, the question could be the name of your personal doctor. This will stop many of the guessing attacks on the system, and offer a stronger level of protection. Moreover, the answer needs to be a full sentence, and use all of the available space offered by the form when signing up for the account.

Q: What is the name of your doctor?

A: Her name is actually the name of the city where she was born.

What if you cannot pick a personal question and have to select one of the offered questions and answers? The fix here is also a simple one, namely you should lie. Lie through your teeth, pick a question, make the answer the same as you would if you wrote the question yourself, and stick to this lie.

The explanation is a little unclear, IMO, so I'll re-state it: You make your answer a complete sentence that you can remember and that is as long as it can be given the size of the box. That way the complexity of the "backup password" [Schneier's phrase] is increased exponentially just by virtue of its length, but the password actually becomes more memorable, because now it's mnemonic.

This is how and why WPA Passphrases work work the way they do. You can have your network authentication be something like "when i was a kid we loved to eat grasshoppers in cleveland." It's absurd and counter-factual (so hard to guess), but memorable (so you don't have to write it down).

At 4,800 female residents, that's how many rapes per year?

From the Boston Globe story about the idea that the town of Wasilla made rape victims pay to report a rape, this paragraph caught my attention:

After the Alaska Legislature banned the fees, Palin's handpicked police chief, Charlie Fannon, complained that the state's action would force the town to spend $5,000 to $14,000 a year to cover the costs. "I just don't want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer," Fannon said.

Now, supposedly the town didn't actually charge people to report rapes (by billing them for the rape kit that you'd have to use in order to actually get a rape charge to stick). That's actually not what I'm interested in, here: What I'm interested in are the rape statistics implicit in Charlie Fannon's statement.

Let's do some math. Now, I know that medical supplies and procedures are expensive under the current American medical system, so let's be conservative and assume that the real cost to the town for the billable parts of a rape kit are $200 each. That works out to between 25 and 70 reported rapes per year in the town of Wasilla, based on Fannon's cost estimates. That's in a town which might possibly have as many as 4,800 female residents, depending on whose demographic data you accept.

How does that compare with national averages?

The most recent data I could quickly find is from 1998, for a sexual assault rate (incidence of actual penetrative rape would be lower) of 34.4 per 100,000 persons. Roughly estimating, that's about .03% (math corrections welcome). With a total population of about 9,600, given 25 to 70 reported rapes per year, the town of Wasilla has a rape-rate of between about .3% and .7% -- that makes Wasilla's rape rate between 10 and 20 times higher than the national average for 1998, or about 260 to 730 per 100,000 persons.

What the hell are they smoking up there?

[Correcting my math.]

Poker Dreams. Or: Let's be clear how this is going to go.

I had a dream about poker last night. Barack Obama was in it, sort of, as a presence in the background, someone I knew was playing, somewhere. So was John McCain. I was getting together things for a rummage sale, and one of the things I was putting in was a poker set. Only, it was poker played with dice, and the game had been somehow "simplified" so that people wouldn't have to actually understand suits and hands and betting rules. The dice had arabic numerals on them. (In my dream, the old-fashioned dot-patterns were deemed 'too complicated'.) And there were lots of dice -- hundreds, possibly.

I'm generally not big on the idea that dreams are metaphors for life, but this one seems so relevant, so poetic, that I can't ignore it. See, Obama is a poker player. Supposed to be quite good at it. The most important thing in poker is to make decisions about your course of action that are based on what you actually know (is he showing his tell? what cards are face up? what have I got? is my gut telling me anything?), and then sticking to it until you know something that warrants changing your plan. McCain is a craps player. He throws dice. The most important thing in craps is that you have a lot of money, so it doesn't hurt so much when you lose it. Snap decisions don't matter one way or another, so intermittent reinforcement will tend to make those decisions stick with you as valuable more often than as detrimental.

John McCain will not be debating tonight. Sarah Palin will not be debating next week. John McCain will be maneuvered into position to take credit for a solution to the financial crisis as a favor from the Republican leadership, even though he'll have nothing constructive to do with it; in so doing, it will be made clear to half of America that he muddied the waters by injecting himself into the mix, and to the other half that he Took Charge And Got It Done.

I actually think there's an excellent chance there won't be any debates at all. He seems desperate to avoid them. Obama's best bet is to let it be known that he'll be available whenever McCain wants to carry forward with the planned debates, and keep pointing out that the Senate Finance Committee (which McCain has no part in) has actually been making excellent progress without intereference from the Presidential candidates.

At this point in time the campaign starts to look like a slow-motion train wreck: Palin is being shown for the lightweight she is, McCain is cracking under the pressure of trying to be something other than John McCain, and Obama is keeping his cool and sticking to his game. He seems to know what's in his hand, and to have known for months. Let the dice fall where they may: He's not playing that game. He's playing poker, not craps.

The Sarah Palin Nomination as an Insult to Sarah Palin

Judith Warner has had an epiphany:

Frankly, I’ve come to think, post-Kissinger, post-Katie-Couric, that Palin’s nomination isn’t just an insult to the women (and men) of America. It’s an act of cruelty toward her as well.

I think Sarah Palin is a pathological narcissist (and arguably, bully) with serious control issues. But it is becoming so much clearer how far out of her depth she's swimming that my inner David Foster Wallace is suggesting in his roundabout way that Ms. Warner has a point about this: If we ridicule the bullies, we just validate their approach.

For Pity's Sake, Don't Actually Use Your Mother's Maiden Name!

Those security questions that Yahoo, Google, your bank, and everyone else ask you when you register for an account (what's your mother's maiden name? where did you go to high school?) are a stupid, stupid idea.

They always were. I've been telling people this for years: Your city of birth, high school mascot, and mother's maiden name are all matters of public record for just about anyone. If you supply accurate answers to those questions, you are essentially creating a password that can be looked up by random strangers. Your favorite color, the place where you met your spouse and the model of your first car are all things that casual acquaintences could know. A story on Threat Level (@ Wired blogs) about the Sarah Palin Yahoo Mail cracking episode beautifully illustrates exactly why. Here's a description, posted on 4chan by someone alleging to be the cracker:

... it took seriously 45 mins on wikipedia and google to find the info, Birthday? 15 seconds on wikipedia, zip code? well she had always been from wasilla, and it only has 2 zip codes (thanks online postal service!)

the second was somewhat harder, the question was “where did you meet your spouse?” did some research, and apparently she had eloped with mister palin after college, if youll look on some of the screenshits that I took and other fellow anon have so graciously put on photobucket you will see the google search for “palin eloped” or some such in one of the tabs.

I found out later though more research that they met at high school, so I did variations of that, high, high school, eventually hit on “Wasilla high” I promptly changed the password to popcorn and took a cold shower…

In other words, s/he was able to crack Palin's account with only the most basic reverse-social-engineering techniques

The biggest irony in all of this is that it all worked, basically, because for once in her recent life Sarah Palin told the truth. If she'd lied in answering that security question, none of this would have ever happened.

Obscuring the questions does not help. All it does is require a little more research and maybe a little more guessing. What you need to do is have a question that only the person being asked can answer, that would be very difficult for a stranger to guess. You can achieve that very easily with the current generation of "security" questions by simply lieing. For example, if you're born in Atlanta, you give your city of birth as 'Schenectady.' Or, better yet, some random word that as far as you know isn't the name of any actual city, like "mumbledypeg." Your first car? For pity's sake, do not answer that one with the name of an actual car model. Instead, give an unrelated answer that you can remember, like "a raisin."

Ideally, this kind of security regime should involve several questions, about which you tell several different lies, and which lies you should never discuss with anyone. For example, Sarah Palin could say she met Todd at "acetominophen", or that her mother's maiden name was "rotary." But under no circumstance should a regime that's intended to increase security create de facto passwords that someone can just look up via Google.

Timothy McSweeney is Devastated and Lost

Timothy McSweeney's Header Image

David Foster Wallace hung himself Friday night.

Many folks chimed in on a long-ish Metafilter thread to say how much they thought of him -- and for the most part, the knee-jerk Wallace/Eggers Haterz Brigade stayed away.

Meanwhile, Dave Eggers left three or four screenfulls of blank space on the McSweeneys home page. On the MeFi thread, I'd suggested someone should get Eggers to write an obit. Then it struck me that would be a bit like asking Paul to eulogize John: You're not likely to get his best work when he's still trying to get his breath back from a kick in the gut.

I've read several of Wallace's essays over the past several years, and I've always been impressed by his obvious, earnest passion. I reckon that I've had Infinite Jest recommended to me more times than any other book. I reckon I ought to get around to reading it, now.


"Hey, Biden! Get up off your big fat resume!"

Jonathan Martin quotes Sarah Palin from Charlie Gibson's tightly scripted command performance with Princess Sarah:

“But, Charlie, again, we've got to remember what the desire is in this nation at this time. It is for no more politics as usual and somebody's big, fat resume [sic] maybe that shows decades and decades in that Washington establishment, where, yes, they've had opportunities to meet heads of state.”

"Big fat résumé"? Biden's right, she's good at this schoolyard bullshit.

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Sleeping With The Enemy

Thomas Frank (writing in the Wall Street Journal, of all places) has been paying attention to what's actually been happening in "small town America":

Leave the fantasy land of convention rhetoric, and you will find that small-town America, this legendary place of honesty and sincerity and dignity, is not doing very well. If you drive west from Kansas City, Mo., you will find towns where Main Street is largely boarded up. You will see closed schools and hospitals. You will hear about depleted groundwater and massive depopulation.

And eventually you will ask yourself, how did this happen? Did Hollywood do this? Was it those "reporters and commentators" with their fancy college degrees who wrecked Main Street, U.S.A.?

No. For decades now we have been electing people like Sarah Palin who claimed to love and respect the folksy conservatism of small towns, and yet who have unfailingly enacted laws to aid the small town's mortal enemies.

It's so much like an abusive relationship, I could scream: You want to tell the spouse, the child, the significant other, America that this person is just gaslighting them, conning them -- that what we're looking at is a not a leader but a kapo, leading you to the slaughter. Worse, really, because she's bought into some kind the bizarre religion of Free-Marketism, which allows her to convince herself that she's actually doing something good for the heartland she's helping to systematically screw over.

After 2000 and 2004, I'm starting to think that if we as a nation insist on paying attention to images and conjured narratives and other bullshit instead of paying attention to what's actually been happening, then maybe the goons and con-artists are right -- maybe we do deserve to get taken.

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Extending the Sarah Palin Goon Analogy

Sean Quinn's analogy between Sarah Palin and a hockey goon has been stirring my thinking on the matter. Especially the last part of his piece, where he points out that a goon is only as good as her [sic] line:

... Successful agitator Kris Draper of the Detroit Red Wings had the clutch Steve Yzerman for a lot of years. That worked. Detroit won Cups. They had parades.

Successful agitator Tyson Nash, when he was on my Blues, was stuck with the antithesis of playoff clutch, the easily thrown-off-his-game Keith Tkachuk. That didn’t work. No Cup. Even if Palin is successful in her task of agitation and distraction, which one is John McCain?

So Sean is apparently taking some comfort (or maybe just a professional interest) in the idea that McCain might not be able to capitalize on the chaos his goon has stirred up.

I had a couple of thoughts proceeding from this:

  • It's not entirely true. Hockey history (particularly in the US, where we love our goons) is full of teams who've leveraged goonish behavior to push teams of mediocre talent to the fore. The '70s Flyers are probably the paradigmatic case; I don't know hockey history well enough to cite other examples, but I remember lots of conversations about this from my hockey-fan friends. So the McCain-Palin electoral analogy would be that the Republican machine has the most incredible goon squad we've seen in American national politics since the 19th century. They're really really good at it.
  • Not directly related: How do you fight a goon? Why, with other goons, of course! This is the point where the Obama camp needs to organize its surrogates well and surreptitiously to go out there and goon it up on the goons. Since this is verbal combat, "naming the behavior" will be critically important: The cleverer equivalent of "I know you are, but what am I?" It's astonishingly applicable in this case. Attack: "Barack Obama is enslaved to earmarks" Retort: "I know you are, but what am I?" (Except, well, not "I". You get the idea, though.) See how the Earmark Queen deals with that.

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Quote for the Moment

Sarah Palin thinks she is a better American than you because she comes from a small town, and a superior human being because she isn't a journalist and never lived in Washington and likes to watch her kids play hockey. Although Palin praised John McCain in her acceptance speech as a man who puts the good of his country ahead of partisan politics, McCain pretty much proved the opposite with his selection of a running mate whose main asset is her ability to reignite the culture wars.

-- Michael Kinsley in TIME

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Sarah Palin: Hockey Mom, or Hockey Goon? Or: Cruelty Is Strength, And Strength Is Good, Episode #32589

Sean Quinn put very cleanly something I've been thinking about for a week and a half or so, ever since that cute "pitbull with lipstick" gauntlet-slap. They key is in understanding that she's not a "Hockey Mom" -- she's a hockey goon. Er, I mean, hockey agitator.

.... She's a hockey player. She’s a fourth-line hockey agitator, beloved by the home crowd, loathed by the opponents, injecting passion into both fan bases, the kind of home-team hero that no Stanley Cup winner goes without.

Once upon a time, I applied an NFL-replay mentality to hockey playoffs, holding on to outrages over missed calls, blatantly unfair officiating, double standards, and outright getting-away-with-stuff (which always led to an early spring exit for my beloved Blues). I wanted – and unreasonably expected – bad behavior to be proportionally punished.

And then several years ago I had an epiphany about the hockey playoffs – nobody is coming to save you. Initiators win, reactors lose. Expect adversity, because it's built in. The fourth-line, no-scoring-talent, pest agitators (or as we now call them, “energy guys”) have a specific job. Skate in, take a cheap shot, make it after the whistle. Make it against the rules. Stir something up. Put a wet glove in the other guy's face and rub it. Get the outrage flowing. Get the opponent not thinking about the game, get them thinking about your shenanigans. And what happens? The “victimized” team loses its composure, hitting back. The guy who hits second is always the guy who goes to the penalty box. [emph added]

Watching Sarah Palin this week, and the reaction to her by both sides, and all the talk of hockey mommery, I realized that this is who she is. She skates into the corner, throws up an elbow, and the Democrats cry: “Foul!” Hey! She said Obama has never passed a major bill – this is an objective lie! Hey! She ridiculed community organizing the day after Service was the theme! Technically people should punish her by not voting for her over this infraction!

It’s whining, and whiners hit back second and go to the penalty box on top of it. Electoral Projections Done Right: Sarah Palin Is Not a Hockey Mom

And what's more, in the Code of the Goon, they deserve it. Cruelty is strength, and the weak deserve to be punished. It's the Republican way.

Heaven forbid we dare to name the behavior, as Joe Biden so eloquently did a few days ago.

“It was about how well placed -- and boy she is good -- how a left jab can be stuck pretty nice. It’s about how Barack Obama is such a bad guy.”

(Thanks also to the Daily Show.)

All of this, of course, is bullshit in the Frankfurtian sense: Truth is irrelevant, because the objective is to make a new "truth" on the ground, shaped out of power.

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(Addendum: Just because I'm curious whether calling a spade a spade on this will actually catch on, here's Google's results on 'sarah palin' hockey goon,

Triumph of the Passive Aggressive?

In contemplation of the "Eagleton Scenario", my razor-sharp political instincts immediately kicked in and I started thinking "this is all a ploy to pave the way for Vinegar Joe."

I mean, if you were Mitt or Tim, would you take the job at this point?

And what better way to force the divorced Jew down the throats of the rabid right than by having Tim and Mitt say 'no'? McCain could say "I wish THE MEDIA had been more open-minded, but they weren't, so now I'm choosing a man above reproach." Vinegar Joe.

And it wouldn't hurt that Lieberman may well be the only eligible (as in, American-born and over 35) senior Republican politician who actually still likes McCain at this point.

Not that McCain planned it that way, at least not consciously. I'm coming to think he doesn't think that much.

Then again: As I said, razor-sharp....

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Too clever for his own damn good

One of the interesting things accomplished by John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running is the effective neutralization of Joe Biden's much-vaunted "attack dog" persona.

Well, at least until Obama praises her and says it's a great sign of positive change. 'One more hit against that glass ceiling,' I believe, were the words.

It wasn't as stupid a selection as it sounds like. But Obama isn't as stupid as McCain thinks he is, so it's kind of a wash. I'm betting that Biden can find a way to outclass her in a head-on debate without coming off as patronizing, and I'm betting that Americans are clever enough to recognize that a state senator from Chicago trumps the mayor of a small Alaskan city.


Have You Seen Sam Nunn?

So I just want to know: Has anyone actually seen Sam Nunn "out of the country"?

I mean, if I were Barack Obama and I really truly wanted to put the fake on a bunch of zealous reporters, I'd make sure they were watching everybody but the one guy I was going to pick. The guy they're not watching because his spokeswoman says he's "out of the country."

ADDENDUM: Well, it would have been pretty darn amusing, at least.


Those Words Evoke Invocation

If they don't understand the words you use well enough to know that you're talking nonsense, I suppose the argument must go, they deserve to be conned.

Victor Davis Hanson at the National Review is asking "Why is Obama foolishly evoking race time after time?"

I suppose Obama could fix that by coloring his skin white. (Isn't it interesting that Obama "evokes" race, but McCain doesn't. Kind of like the one-drop rule: If any color shows, it signals "race.")

I envision the shade of William F. Buckley jabbing fiercely at Hanson with a ghostly blue pencil, alternating with an whacks from an insubstantial Collegiate to pay Hanson back for mis-using the term yet again in the body copy.

But I imagine Buckley might be proud of Hanson for this adorable rhetorical sleight-of-hand:

Obama's problems with race have nothing to do with his half -African ancestry or his own experience with racism and unfairness, but boil down to his deftly wanting it both ways: reminding the Germans he is a different sort of American from what they're used to (false, they knew Rice and Powell well enough), while preempting by suggesting others will evoke race, but in a negative context.

So let me get this straight: The different look that Obama was talking about was dark skin? Since, you know (you did know this, right?) that both Rice and Powell are (snicker!) black.

Of course, it could be intentional intellectual sloth. Clever boy. "My opponent is a practicing heterosexual, and his sister is a known Thespian," as Earl Long is reputed to have remarked with all apparent sincerity. The key is to force the marked man to talk about his own marking. That way you can accuse him of bringing it up.

Singularity as Death-Avoidance

IEEE Spectrum focuses on the technological singularity. Glenn Zorpette thinks it's largely driven by fear of death:
The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

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Freeman Dyson and the Pretense of Vision

Freeman Dyson is one of the more dangerous scientists alive right now.

.... The wiggles in the [Keeling] graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

That's just science fiction, of course -- not the scary part at all. This is the scary part:

It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.

Translation: "We don't need to do anything now, because we'll invent our way out of the problem when the time comes."

I suppose I should be grateful that he's no longer appointing himself global diagnostician. At least now he admits that there might be a problem.

I've been told by people I respect that Dyson is a very good physicist. But I'm hard put to recall anything outside of his domain that wasn't just plain stupid once you got past the "oh, neato" moment. I mean, Dyson Spheres are a cool idea, but also a really dumb one if you think about them just a tiny bit. They're a triumph of the broadly logically possible: We can imagine it, therefore it must be feasible. We can imagine going Niven & Pournelle one better and building a sphere around a small star (or arranging otherwise to intercept all of the star's energy). We can imagine nesting matrioshka layers one inside the other, to overlap and trap the inevitable leakage. All we have to do is solve this list of several thousand technical problems. We've solved every other technical problem we've ever been presented with; we'll clearly be able to solve these. What is conceivable, is feasible.

We can imagine magic carbon-sequestering trees, therefore they must be feasible. We can imagine a quarter of the world's trees being replaced by these magic inventions, therefore we should count on it happening (when the alternative is essentially the collapse of civilization).

All of these speculations commit an obvious and really, really troubling error: They assume that certain important things, like rate of technological innovation, rate of increate in energy use, etc., are essentially laws of nature: That not only won't they change, but that their not changing is a righteous thing. Moore's Law will go on forever; we'll keep increasing our need for energy at a predictable and increasing rate; we'll keep inventing new ways to solve all of our problems; better living through chemistry.

This kind of thinking is usually based on a detailed look at only a very short span of human history, and a very high-level gloss of anything beyond the past three or four hundred years.

It's disturbingly short sighted, in other words, even as it pretends to vision.

This is why I don't respect Dyson: He pretends to vision, but is blind to his own short-sightedness

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The Message Is The Message; Or, Enforcing Subjective Aesthetics Through Ridicule Since 2007

Design Police Are Operating In This Area -- And They've Got Crappy Design Sense, Too

Why does anybody still think that ridicule is a useful tool for achieving positive ends? And why is anyone still willing to accept the idea that people who claim to use ridicule for positive ends are doing anything other than bullying people to make themselves feel superior?

Design is a religion. Let's just be clear about that. It has so many of the salient characteristics of religion that I find it difficult to understand why people become so offended at the notion that what they're preaching is not objective truth, it's faith. After all, they've expended a great deal of effort, karma and usually money to get their design credentials, and then they have to live in a world that Doesn't Take Design Seriously. (Much like the world doesn't Love Poetry. But that's another subject for another time.)

I feel for them, but I can't quite reach them, as my dad used to say. Here's a hint: Preachers go to grad school, too. There's a difference between VoTech and science, and unless you're formulating and falsifying hypotheses, design students, you're basically in a jumped-up VoTech program. Just like preachers.

Design fascists like the Design Police start very quickly to sound like folks who see oppression of Christians in all aspects of American daily life. What they're really seeing is that their particular religious biases are not honored by everyone who doesn't share them. Designers see stuff they don't like and confuse that with "bad design" in much the same way that extreme religioninsts see attitudes and behaviors they don't like and confuse it with immorality.

Truly hard-core design fetishists have a wonderful and seemingly limitless capacity for arrogance. They can say stuff like "Comic Sans is Evil", can insist that proper kerning and ligature are crucial to truly understanding the meaning of a text, and basically imply that the rest of the world is populated with design-illiterate idiots who are destroying civilization through sloth and ignorance, all with a straight face and all without realizing that they're basically the design-equivalent of Anne Coulter: endlessly blathering that people who don't "get" them just have no sense of humor. (And bad taste, of course, to boot. Because Helvetica on pink bubblegum is the height of design, doncha know. Wait, I forgot: Intention is what matters; they meant it to be ugly, it's a statement....)

Take the Design Police ("Bring bad design to justice"). (Please take them.) They're a couple of design students (ah, they're still in DESIGN SCHOOL, that goes a long way toward explaining their sophomoric arrogance) I got a link to this lovely little bit of high-concept hideousness ("it's ugly on purpose! that makes it clever!") from a designer in my company. She's easily offended and basically a nice person, not given to deep thought about the fact that her attitude basically implies that everyone else is an idiot, so I refrained from pointing out to her that this is actually pretty fucking offensive elitist bullshit. She works in advertising. She doesn't realize or doesn't accept that design is not as important as designers like to think it is, and why should she? Why would she? It would have a negative impact on her ability to do her work. Heaven forbid someone should point out that the high-concept design choice may not communicate as effectively as a simpler, more message-oriented choice.

Many designers seem to have been drilled in the facile mantra that "medium is message", without any real analysis of what that means. So they take a basically insightful concept like Emotional Design and turn it into a justification for the simple subordination of understanding to gut feeling. Most designers are what the President would call "libruhls", but the attitude is the same as his: The gut is king, the emotions rule over all, what I feel is much more important than anything you or I might know, and that's as it should be. That's not, of course, what Don Norman was arguing when he wrote Turn Signals Are The Facial Expressions Of Automobiles, and it's not what guys like Tognazzini profess to mean when they use the term "emotional design." But I've worked and interacted with a lot of designers, and it seems pretty clear to me that in the current design zeitgeist -- at least on the web -- emotional design means "to look good is much more important than to be good." That appearance becomes its own reality. A very neo-conservative attitude.

I've got no illusions about changing the viewpoint of designers any more than I have about changing the viewpoints of militant religioninsts or militant atheists. They'll believe what they believe. I would really just prefer that they stop wasting my attention and lots of people's energy and money with their bullying (pomo) blather about the importance of clearly marginal crap like the "unimaginative" choice of Helvetica.

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Parkinson's Law, Revised

Parkinson's Law is commonly stated as "work expands to fill the time allotted for completion."

I've come to realize that's an insufficient specification. I've come to realize that work will always expand to exceed the time allotted. Probably by some quantity that can be expressed as a function, but I find the insight sufficiently depressing that I don't think I want to know.


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