Friday, September 26, 2008

First presidential debate, Obama vs. McCain

He he. I saw Wolf Blitzer say on CNN post-debate (paraphrase), "We've been getting emails about why we interviewed Vice Presidential candidate Biden but not Sarah Palin. We tried to get Sarah Palin, we'd love to talk to Sarah Palin sometime... down the road... we did talk to Nicole Wallace, senior advisor to John McCain." Apparently Palin declined the invitation. Here's what she did instead.

Sarah and I watched the debate together. She was paying more attention when Jim Lehrer asked the candidates at the beginning of the debate not to talk to him, but address each other, so she noticed first when McCain didn't look at Obama. We're still not sure why McCain did that.

After that, I watched reasonably carefully, and I don't think McCain really looked at him until they shook hands after the debate was over. On a related note, Obama addressed McCain directly, calling him John and talking to him in the second person; McCain was all third person all the time.

Without belaboring the point, I got the feeling that McCain was not engaging. If you covered up Obama's side of the screen and edited McCain's segments together, it would look a bit like a speech. It would not look like give and take. Haven't we had enough of a President who does not listen?

I got another idea just now. McCain says "my friend/my friends" all the time when he is addressing people in public. Maybe if he'd said "my friend" to Obama it would've looked insincere and condescending, so they had to go as far away from the second person as possible.

Another thing I was kind of surprised to see was McCain being the angry old man. Was I the only one to think Grandpa Simpson when McCain started telling yet another story about how he'd visited a country, which makes him some kind of foreign policy genius? I failed to see the huge point of "I've been to Waziristan", beyond grandstanding. If it's really that important... would you pick a vice president who's never really traveled or been interested in these issues?

Famously, he also visited Iraq a year ago and said there "are neighborhoods in Baghdad where you and I could walk through those neighborhoods, today". He spoke from experience. He had just walked through a neighborhood in Baghdad. Of course, he had a bulletproof vest, and he was escorted... by 100 soldiers, 3 Blackhawk helicopters, and 2 Apache gunships. Anyone can just go to countries... but actually learning something with open eyes takes a little more effort.

Back to the main line, "I don't think John McCain understands" how he dated himself when he started bringing up Kissinger and how long he'd been around, and telling stories from the Reagan era... like bringing up SDI (!) on the missile defense issue. I caught it, but I doubt most of the country did. And I still missed the point, ie why he actually brought it up.

McCain came off as a get-off-my-lawn condescending old guy to me... I think that will not help his chances.

As for Obama, I thought he respected the format better than McCain. He wasn't always as firm as I would like in responding to McCain. He didn't quite bring up McCain's long record of financial services deregulation. Nor did he ask what victory and defeat mean in what is now, after all, not a war but an occupation of Iraq. But overall, a pretty solid performance, and that's probably all he needed.

Maybe I'll have some more deep thoughts later.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Your tax dollars at work

If you've been having trouble following the soap opera that is the market bailout (there is no Wall Street anymore, there are no extant investment banks, so I feel funny calling it the Wall Street Bailout), Krugman has a good catch-up post bringing us up to Wednesday. Here are some highlights. If you're interested, read the whole thing.

Before I explain the apparent logic here, let’s talk about how governments normally respond to financial crisis: namely, they rescue the failing financial institutions, taking temporary ownership while keeping them running. If they don’t want to keep the institutions public, they eventually dispose of bad assets and pay off enough debt to make the institutions viable again, then sell them back to the private sector. But the first step is rescue with ownership.

That’s what we did in the S&L crisis; that’s what Sweden did in the early 90s; that’s what was just done with Fannie and Freddie; it’s even what was done just last week with AIG. It’s more or less what would happen with the Dodd plan, which would buy bad debt but get equity warrants that depend on the later losses on that debt.

But now Paulson and Bernanke are proposing, very nearly, to do the opposite: they want to buy bad paper from everyone, not just institutions in trouble, while taking no ownership. In fact, they’ve said that they don’t want equity warrants precisely because they would lead financial institutions that aren’t in trouble to stay away. So we’re talking about a bailout specifically designed to funnel money to those who don’t need it.


So, three points:

1. They’re still offering something for nothing. ...
2. They’re asserting that Treasury and the Fed know true values better than the market. ...
3. Even if it works, the system will remain badly undercapitalized. ...

Palin's interviews keep getting worser and worserer. I'm having to invent parts of speech just to keep up with them. Seriously, no VP candidate should make you cringe when they talk about the issues. Listen when Palin talks about McCain's record on deregulation (near the end, I think).

I view McCain's "campaign suspension" (TV ads, stump speech at Clinton Global Initiative, and surrogates all over the news media notwithstanding) and flight to Washington as a jump-the-shark moment. I thought the election was over when I found out who Sarah Palin was... I keep thinking the election is over. Expect more shark-jumping as the polls get worse for him. I said earlier that Bush has governed by jumping from crisis to crisis and I believe McCain is campaigning from crisis to crisis.

Monday, September 22, 2008

She's real fine, my 419

I got this email in my inbox. Not sure where it started, but it's an important message for all Americans.

Dear American:

I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.

I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America. My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.

I am working with Mr. Phil Gram, lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of the Treasury in January. As a Senator, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transactin is 100% safe.

This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check. We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.

Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction. After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.

Yours Faithfully Minister of Treasury Paulson

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The sky is always falling

The story of this presidency, repeating as tragedy and farce: Crisis X is mounting and will cause the end of Western Civilization. Emergency Plan Y must be put into effect this week or we are all DOOMED. Anyone who looks askance at Y is dangerously naive and will be the first up against the wall when X hits the fan.

Y has been, variously, putting domestic communications in the hands of the NSA, the PATRIOT Act, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the perpetrators of 9/11, invading a country without a casus belli, torturing the innocent and the guilty in our public and secret prisons, putting enemy combatants outside of the purview of the justice system, sending untracked cash to the money pit that was the Iraq Reconstruction...

This week, Y equals a 700 billion dollar bailout for Wall Street, run by the Secretary of the Treasury, with actions not reviewable, period. Here's the draft:

Sec. 8. Review.

Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.

I read The Big Picture and Infectious Greed to stay informed on the markets and the economy, and so should you. There are many many problems with this corporate welfare, but here's the obvious one: this is a replay of the Iraq Reconstruction, only instead of sending pallets of cash to God-Knows-Who, we taxpayers are sending pallets of cash to honest-to-God Wall Street fat cats, no strings attached.

Like the other Xs, the crisis is overblown, but we are being asked not to take time to think things through. Like the other Ys, the solution is half-baked and likely to be counter-productive in the long run, and hands over power to an unaccountable elite.

Chicken Little is our President. The sky is always falling: it is in stable geosynchronous orbit. We don't govern anymore. Instead, we continuously manage our way from crisis to crisis. There is no normal. Heart rates are always up, blood is always pounding through our brain, fight or flight. We have no long-term vision for policy, just tunnel vision.

This is one of my criticisms of the Democrats. On issues like this one, they aren't liberal and wonky enough. They don't get their dander up and stand firm against the excesses of the latter-day conservative movement, and, more importantly, they don't deconstruct the fear-mongering that spins us from emergency to crisis to apocalypse.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A few quick things

  • The content browser for Spore is very exciting. You can spend hours on it... Here are two takes on WALL-E.

  • The first one was done in the creature editor. The second one was in one of the vehicle editors. The thing to blow your mind is, somebody did that vehicle one since Sunday... and it probably took a couple of hours at most. It's introducing a whole generation to 3-D modeling and design...
  • Clueless governor department. See if you can spot my issues with her first big interview...

I'm almost done with Suskind's book. A review is imminent.

A must-see post-convention McCain interview

Watch McCain twist and dodge real, tough questions from a smart, respectful, hard-hitting reporter. Also, McCain flat out lies: "She [Palin] knows more about energy than probably anyone else in the United States of America." This one is a must-see. I would embed it, but it plays automatically when the page loads.

And incidentally, contra McCain in the interview, Obama did famously break with his party and most everybody else in what you'd have to say is one of the better calls of the last several years.

Now let me be clear — I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.

I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.

From an anti-Iraq War speech, October 2, 2002

Good Morning America covering Troopergate

Trouble a-brewing. Sarah put on the TV this morning. Good Morning America aired an ABC News investigation that covered Palin, Monegan's testimony, his witness and emails that he was sent about the trooper. In other words, hard evidence...

You know what they say. If you've lost Good Morning America, it's over.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


I got Spore on Sunday, like many other people in North America.

As you may know, there are several stages of life as we know it. Spore splits them into Cell (really bacteria, I suppose), Creature, Tribe (the beginning of sentience), Civilization (politics), and finally Space. At each stage, you customize your body, tribe (probably the weakest), buildings, and vehicles with almost endless variety in 3D editors that are years ahead of the state-of-the-art (they kind of invented their own state-of-the-art). There are various goals that you pursue in the first levels to proceed up the evolutionary ladder, such as subduing or befriending tribes, or eating things.

The reviews have been mixed so far. Everyone thinks that the content creation tools are great. Everyone who is playing is automatically uploading their content to central servers, which then spread them back out to all the players' individual games. There were 4 million shared objects in that database last weekend, the creature creator having been released a couple of months ago. Today, less than a week after the release, there are 12 million creatures, buildings, and vehicles in there (and no, that figure is not going to stand up if you read this post a week from now). And there is some stuff that is totally unreal coming out of it, like animals that look like cars, as well as more humdrum creatures with two arms, two legs, two ears, two eyes, etc (of course, a lot of people are trying to make Homer Simpson and all their favorite characters, so it's not as humdrum as all that). Here's my page of stuff.

But the goal-based gameplay in the first few levels is kind of dumb. I started on Easy, and it was pretty impossible to screw up (I still managed to die three times on Tribal phase). You'll pick it up pretty fast and get on your merry way shortly. But a lot of hardcore gamers didn't like this. They wanted a challenge from the get-go, and the gameplay lacked the kind of depth they are used to in the various genres that Spore pays homage to: Diablo-type third-person action games, Starcraft-type real-time strategy, and Civilization-type world-conquest games.

It is becoming more obvious to me now that the gameplay was made deliberately easy in those first four stages for two reasons: one, for the creative people who love to make stuff but could care less about being challenged, the gameplay was made simple enough not to get in their way; two, the first four stages are not much more than a glorified tutorial for the awe-inspiring Space stage, and the game designers wanted everyone to get there.

The Space Stage is one of those gaming experiences that hearkens back to the best of the grand strategy games, the Star Controls and the Civs, the buy-low, sell-high of Drug Wars, the space exploration of VGA planets... it brings some new things into the mix too, in modeling planets with food webs, atmospheres, and temperature. For some reason, I am really enjoying terraforming worlds and filling them with flourishing species.

Each world that supports life can have any combination of those animals, vehicles, and buildings, and can be at any of those stages of evolution that you passed through. There are (hundreds of?) thousands of stars in the galaxy, and several worlds per star... you could never see everything. It beggars the imagination.

I recommend starting on Easy. It will help you learn the ropes. I had many aha moments as I went through that will help me a lot on the second time through. I don't know if I'm going to finish the story part of the game, first time through. I am tempted to take what I know and start over, ready for a bit easier time of it.

I recommend it highly for anyone ready to get creative, have their mind expanded, and invest a lot of time. I spent about six hours just getting to Space the first time (it would be a lot faster second time around), and Space, the galaxy, is basically an endless playground.

PS There is a kind of protest going on about the digital rights management (DRM) the game distributor, EA, put on Spore. If I understand it, it only allows you to install the software on three computers, then you have to call in and prove you purchased the software somehow to keep installing it. It also phones home with your license key every time you connect to EA's servers for content.

A lot of people saw this as pointless, because you could download the software from various Bittorrent establishments on the day it came out. That is, the DRM only harms legitimate customers who went out and bought the game, while doing nothing to stem piracy.

Thus, for starters, people started giving Spore one-star reviews on Amazon. It has 2133 reviews, 1961 of which are one-stars. If you didn't read around, you wouldn't know about the critical acclaim it has received (with the caveats I mentioned above). It's a five-star game in my book.

Has the DRM hurt sales of this great game? I think so... I hope the end result is that the DRM is removed, that's a win-win. I am not a fan of DRM in any of its forms, I just couldn't help myself on this purchase.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Palin and the Presidency

I don't know a better way to respond to the comments substantively than promoting them to the front page. I hope my commenters don't mind...

OK Dan. Obviously last week I agreed whole-heartedly with you. Now, I'm in the McCain camp, and you can thank Sarah Palin for that.
I've also been putting a lot of thought into what the Biblical role of government should be. Is it really to be a provider? Shouldn't the church be doing that? Shouldn't we be afraid of a government that becomes so large that it could take everything away from us? Shouldn't we care about our national security enough to elect somebody that has a proven record of defending our freedom?

Maybe I'm one of those people that is easliy tossed about by the waves of politial hype...but I always kind of knew in the back of my head that I was being rebellious by supporting Obama...I'm not convinced he has my best interests in mind, I now have a hard time with the idea that by voting for him, I'm aligning myself with the downright nasty far-left liberal press, like the writers for the Huffington Post that smeared Sarah Palin's daughter for being pregnant - as if it's any of their business what happens in her family.

McCain's choice of Palin, in my opinion, shows that he is one that is not afraid to buck the establishment of Washington. The guy really is a Maverick and an American Hero. I want him represrenting me and fighting for my freedom. Can't wait for his speech tonight. I'll be praying for your mind to change! :) (Just kidding. I respect your opinion. Keep up the discussion!)

Travis, first, thanks for writing and for what you said a few posts ago. Sarah and I appreciate your support and interest. There are a lot of interesting points here. I will answer a few, in a spirit of frankness and friendship. Nothing I say next is meant to offend, I just call it like I see it.


I think it would be good to judge McCain's vice-presidential pick in the fullness of time. There are substantial reasons that I disapprove of Palin as a presidential pick. They go far beyond her private life.

The most obvious reason for me is a scandal called "Troopergate", where it is fairly obvious and well-reported that:
  1. Palin abused her office as governor to try to get an enemy of her family fired
  2. then fired the Public Safety Commissioner when he wouldn't fire said enemy (a state trooper)
  3. when the fired guy came forward, Palin denied everything, then was forced to change her story when hard evidence came out (one of the conversations was recorded)
  4. then (arguably) interfered with the congressional investigation of her abuse of power, and
  5. has now lawyered up and refused to testify to the same investigation.
If you can get past the left-leaning polemic, you can read a pretty concise description of all this in more detail, as part of a post here. The investigation is currently scheduled to release its findings just before the election. I'm sure we'll be hearing more about it in the coming weeks.

On a more general level, I think Palin is not, realistically, ready to be President. That's what we ask of the Vice President. A couple of months ago, she said she didn't really want the VP job
"until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day. I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration. We want to make sure that that VP slot would be a fruitful type of position, especially for Alaskans and for the things that we’re trying to accomplish up here. ..."
If she didn't know what the VP does, how can we possibly think she's ready to be President?

A few months ago, she had no real position on the Iraq troop surge, preferring to talk in platitudes:
Alaska Business Monthly: We've lost a lot of Alaska's military members to the war in Iraq. How do you feel about sending more troops into battle, as President Bush is suggesting?

Palin: I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq. I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan in place; I want assurances that we are doing all we can to keep our troops safe. Every life lost is such a tragedy. I am very, very proud of the troops we have in Alaska, those fighting overseas for our freedoms, and the families here who are making so many sacrifices.

I had a position on the troop surge (it was all hat and no cattle; no political gains in Iraq have been seen; American soldiers dying for short-term gains in physical security), and I was just making software. The real point for me is that this lady does not have awareness of the world around her. She is not curious about a subject that marched up and down the front pages for months. Yes, she will get coached to agree with John McCain's policy positions, but... I'll make a prediction, she makes a foreign policy gaffe, a real howler, in the near future (I'd say the next two, three weeks but I don't know when the McCain campaign is going to let reporters start talking to her). And she'll do it because she has never really been interested in this stuff.

We have already had an incurious, ignorant, inexperienced, showy, jes folks governor in a Presidential election, and it has been a pure nightmare for our foreign policy. We have lost our standing in the world and the moral high ground, not to mention blood and treasure. Sarah Palin is fool me twice; we should not do this again. (Watch the video where Campbell Brown lays into Tucker Bounds of the McCain campaign, asking what foreign policy experience or qualifications to be Commander in Chief Sarah Palin has. Spoiler: none, which makes the four-minute video quite entertaining in a painful sort of way.)

That's why I don't like the Palin pick, for starters... but no one really knows how deep the rabbit hole goes on Palin, because she was not vetted deeply by the McCain campaign before she was picked. There have been an explosion of stories in the last week on Palin because she was a complete unknown. Everyone wants to know about her, so everything is news.

(Special bonus video: Republicans on MSNBC caught talking off-mike about the Palin pick. Includes a swear.)


I too prefer to focus on substantive issues, not who's having whose baby. Focusing on the bad behavior of the fringes, though, Travis, is no way to decide what "side" you prefer to be on. I don't tar pro-life people with the same brush that I do the terrorists who bomb abortion clinics; you shouldn't tar Democrats, liberals, progressives with the same brush that you do the scandal-mongers at Huffington Post (especially when Obama said specifically that no one should be doing these kinds of stories).

And let me point out that "by voting for him, I'm aligning myself with the downright nasty far-left liberal press" has an equal and opposite argument; if you vote for McCain, you're on the side of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Karl Rove... you can read all the nasty quotes from them you want on Here's a famous one from Coulter:
  • Of course I regret it. I should have added 'after everyone had left the building except the editors and the reporters.'
Don't let irresponsible journalists on either side of the political divide cloud the real issues.


The role of government is a real issue. Here's an example that comes to mind often in this context. There are plenty of statistics that bear out my position that the health insurance industry shows signs of too little government involvement (and that's an understatement). If you have a catastrophic health event without health insurance, you'll lose your home and all your money. It's the leading cause of bankruptcy in America. It's a system that lets unfortunate people drown when they fall off the boat. The profit motive is screwing with health outcomes that would have been otherwise if care had been granted. There is no profit for the insurance industry in waking up and caring for more people, so the system is hardly likely to change now because of market pressure.

In general, churches don't provide you with insurance if you have none. Churches don't pay those bankruptcy-level medical bills for each of its members. There are some issues that are too big for one community to solve, that demand collective action.

The government's role, I think, is not to create so-called fair systems (like laissez-faire markets) and watch people sink or swim within them (and when they sink, say, "the system chewed you up and spat you out, you must not have been good enough, all's fair"). The federal government can improve systems and should step in when any system goes haywire, be it the regulation of energy traders (see Enron), accountants (Arthur Andersen), oil companies (profiteering), military contractors (Halliburton), pollutants (Clean Air Act), subprimes... deregulation or lax regulation in all these arenas has damaged the public good to the profit of a few. When we all say no to that, we want the government to lay down those laws.

Am I in favor of a strong central government? I am not in favor of wholesale surveillance and the erosion of privacy; I am not in favor of unaccountable strong police powers; I am not in favor of the unaccountable unitary executive being able to ignore the legislature on national security. To my mind, there is a big difference between having effective, nationwide (even nationalized?) social programs and having effective, nationwide social control. Somehow the Republicans became in favor of the latter and opposed to the former. I think that's upside down and we need to change it.

As for McCain on national security... that will have to wait for next time. Another can of worms.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obama at the Democratic National Convention

  • The thing I liked best about Obama's acceptance speech at the convention was its emphasis on the progressive vision of the government: essentially, the pendulum has swung too far from "united we stand" to "divided we fall". You can find the speech on mp3 here. It's not much different than watching the video, I think, which is here. It was really decent and inspiring, a real way out of the world of the Bush Administration.
  • The Bush government has faith in the impersonal fairness of systems like world markets, corporate America, the insurance industry, the No Child Left Behind accountability algorithms, realpolitik, no fly lists, data mining of your phone and internet traffic. If you somehow get ground between the gears of the systems, obviously you're doing something wrong. And the people on top deserve to be there. All is right with the world...
  • Meanwhile, in the machine, us ground-up people can decide whether we want to be cooked in someone else's hamburger and served for lunch, or whether this is not in fact the way things should be.
  • There is nothing shameful about leaving behind 99 sheep to save the one that's falling through the cracks. There is nothing shameful about selling your property and giving the proceeds to the poor. There is nothing shameful about providing safety from the catastrophes of our modern era, guarantees that there is a way out.
  • If you're in jail, you should get a habeas corpus writ. If you're sick, you should be insured in such a way that you won't go bankrupt. If you're poor, you should get the help you need to stand on your own two feet. If you're on the no-fly list, you should be able to challenge your presence on the list. If you've profited from the machine, you should pay for those who haven't. If you're well, you should care for the sick. If you're free, you should visit those in prison.
  • As Obama said:
  • It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it.

    For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy — give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is that you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. You're on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You're on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps — even if you don't have boots. You are on your own.

    Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America. And that's why I'm running for president of the United States.