Posts Tagged 'Obama'

Point, Counterpoint

Upon further reflection and continued readings, I may remove Malcolm Gladwell’s book from my favorites of non-fiction. His is among the most popular in a trend of high-concept quirk non-fiction; books investigating social phenomena in macro, boiled down in easy-to-digest case studies.

For instance: I was intrigued by the preview for “Freakonomics” this fall, but when the movie got mediocre-to-poor reviews, my interest waned and I decided why not just read the book instead? And what an exercise in frustration that turned out to be. The concept is intriguing – unearthing the hidden and strange truth behind all sorts of conventional wisdom – and every chapter title contains a clever idea – comparisons of school teachers and sumo wrestlers, or Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents. The introduction to the book dazzled me enough to write in the margins: “Why isn’t all writing this exciting?”

Let's Get Our Freak On

Oh for short-lived enthusiasm. On page four, I wrote, “Uh-oh. My skepticism meter is acting up.” On page nine, talking about political contributions, they state, as if we all know this already, “Chances are you’ll give the money in one of two situations: a close race, in which you think the money will influence the outcome; or a campaign in which one candidate is a sure winner…” My note: “How did they arrive at this position?” It may well be true, but they haven’t explained how they know it’s true (and now wait a second now that you mention it, isn’t that assumption itself another instance of conventional wisdom?). By page 31, I was downright annoyed and I took it out on the paperback’s margins: “By writing complicated things as forgone conclusions you a)don’t respect your readers and b)turn the inspiration behind the book into a gimmick.” Settle down, self.

My frustration continued throughout the book, although there are some very interesting ideas and case studies in it. I’m just not so sure that they mean exactly what the writers want them to mean. Often they draw general conclusions from a single situation, instead of providing further investigation to see how anomalous that situation is/is not. Again, I think they are right about some of this stuff, but they don’t convince us. In fact, they fall into the very trap the book professes to condemn. It doesn’t shatter the notion of “conventional wisdom,” it substitutes a new unfounded or poorly investigated conclusion for another.

Sometimes, though, it was frustrating how bold the illogic was. Near the end of the book, talking about common first names, they list the Top 20 names that signify low-education parents (minimum 100 occurrences) and the the Top 20 names that signify high education parents (minimum 10 occurrences). Unless there was a typo- in the book, there is a problem here. The charts tell us that certain names tend to have poorly- or well-educated parents. The low education names are normal-ish names while the high education names are all very obscure. Hmm… of course they are. The way a name gets on the list, after all, is not dependent on the number of times the name comes up, it’s dependent on the education of the parent. By requiring at least 100 occurrences for low-income names, you ensure that the names on the list will be more common. If there were only 11 occurrences of poorly-educated parents naming their kids “Clementine” or “Waverly,” (both names on the well-educated list), it would not make the low-education list, because there weren’t enough occurrences. The inverse is true as well. By requiring fewer occurrences of a given name for the high-education list, while using the parent’s education, not the child’s name, as the basis for inclusion, you basically create the conclusion you want: well-educated parents’ kids have unique names while poorly-educated parents’ kids have common/bland names. The lists would look different if you made the requirements equal, but it probably wouldn’t create the kind of disparity that the authors wanted to include. As a result, the book posits a more dynamic gap between the poorly- and well-educated. The only problem, of course, being it’s not necessarily true. I don’t think this is some kind of conspiracy, I think more likely it’s the kind of combination of sloppy research mixed with faulty logic that fills and plagues the book.

It may be human nature to desire difficult things to be simplified and made easier to digest. There is value and validity to moving slowly during introductions to difficult concepts, such as in classroom settings. But over the last decade especially – and I point here to a correlation (though not necessarily causation) between this and the sheer amount of mew media (which does, incidentally include blogs like this one) and the emphasis on the push to share the same information in as many different sources as possible – the simplified version of events, of analysis is often the only one offered (on one hand) and the only one sought (on the other). It’s an ironic, ugly trend. It overlooks important aspects, leaves much unexamined, and presents complicated, intriguing things as boring-shaped, limitation-based digestibles… in more formats than ever before. It’s like the not-so-harebrained scheme from Ryan on “The Office” to link up every conceivable communication portal through one system: WUPHF!

And again, look no further than this blog. My twitter feed is available on the right side, and my twitter links to my blog, as does my Facebook. But that’s a tiny example. I’m talking about when people require a single to device to be phone, iPod, word-processor, GPS, camera, edit-bay, Television, video-game console, credit card machine, and live-in lover. Or when something needs to go from a website to twitter to phone apps to Facebook group. Or that cool-looking commercial with the guy who insists on watching his movie in every room of his house while he gets a drink of water. Pause the fucking movie! You’re not giving it your full attention anyway!

It goes without saying that there are people in every avenue providing depth of content. Some of them shy away from new media completely, some utilize it better than anyone. But are those the exceptions or the norm? Most of what bombards us is any combination of cheap, fast, simple, and bland. But there is so much of it that everything, from art to politics to how we live our lives, is entrenched in it. And it’s yet another difficult, maybe impossible job to figure out exactly how everything influences and affects the others. I can’t bring myself to listen to music on the radio anymore. Most “indie” movies are just as monotonously plodded as studio films (because more and more indie movies are studio films now, or at least they’re made with the same mentality: SELL YOUR MOVIE, MAKE A PROFIT!!!). And Oh My God Reality TV is a bigger, more destructive evil than the Venom symbiont.

I tell ya, I don't believe he really has that many arms.

A recent Newsweek article discusses the notion that the modern presidency is a larger responsibility than one man can handle. That the country is too diverse in its needs, the political culture too complex for one man to successfully handle, even if he has the support of Congress. “Lincoln had time to think…That kind of downtime just doesn’t exist anymore.” There are too many programs, too much activity. And while I voted for an Obama I believed (and do still believe) could be the leader of change by navigating those complexities through delegation and intelligent government programs for jobs, welfare, and education, many of his biggest enthusiasts are learning that their notion of Obama as a one-man presidential rock-show was not only naive, it was downright anachronistic.

Meanwhile, 24-hour news channels simplify more and more for more and more minutes of every day. And hey, maybe they have to. How do you cover everything everywhere when all of it is happening at the same time all the time? A better question might be, is it an intelligent aim to seek to report accurately and extensively on everything that happens? Is everything news worthy? Right now the answer is, Yes, if a given story is important to the other major stations, or if it isn’t important to the other major stations but there’s the possibility that the right spin can make it appear as though it should be.

Who is getting frustrated, by show of hands? Overwhelmed? Now that’s progress you can count. Nobody wants to be frustrated, or to feel like they don’t understand fully. It’s psychic numbing (a fascinating subject explored in the great documentary, “Reporter,” which is currently not available). But we don’t understand fully and feeling like we do only exacerbates the extent of our un-understanding. In the same way that the problem is the fault of both sides, so will be the solution. More complex, insight-filled reporting won’t help if no one wants to avail themselves of it, because they get overwhelmed. We need to get over being overwhelmed. Maybe if we’re frustrated for just a little while, we can start to see things more clearly and fully and then work to not be so frustrated and overwhelmed.

(Warning: more Jonathan Franzen praise ahead) Back to the book. Sometimes broad strokes are enough, but research shouldn’t be one of them. To make sure I wasn’t insane, I looked over Jonathan Franzen’s great 2003 collection of essays, How to Be Alone, which includes a brilliant, in-depth essay about the Chicago postal system. It was written in 1994 (Yeah, I know!). It’s 40+ pages long and is, essentially, a case study. But the difference is in the idea. Freakonomics feels like a newspaper article, stretched out to a book. It moves too fast and doesn’t cover enough ground. Franzen’s is an essay. It’s considerate of all sorts of different angles, it comments, it derives meaning from detail. It allows for complications and difficulties and doesn’t make an attempt to tie everything up. Let’s observe an engaging passage:

When postal workers hang out together, they talk about who slept with whom for a promotion, and which handler was found dead of natural causes on a sofa in the employee lounge. They speculate about the reason [Postmaster General] Marvin Runyon’s eyes weren’t blinking during an interview, about whether it was due to medication for his back pain. They revel in dog lore. I’m advised that if I’m ever set upon by a pack of strays I should Mace the one that barks first. I’m told the story of a suburban carrier who was forced to take refuge from an enraged German shepherd in a storage mailbox that he’d been throwing his banana peels and milk cartons into all summer.

This looks AWESOME.

Either way, I’m done with the book and have moved on to the staggeringly good Michael Chabon novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It’s about comic book writers during the 40’s & 50’s and it takes its cue from their profession. The book is littered with interesting characters: magicians, circus performers, Nazis, Salvador Dali even makes a brief, near-death appearance. The book’s two heroic comic book creators follow in their characters’ footsteps and the title’s promise and have exciting, dramatic, suspenseful, rich adventures. And to complement it, I’ve been taking short breaks to read some classic comics. I took in “Batman: HUSH,” which was dark and dense and great, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot from the mid-90’s, “Heroes Reborn.” This is one of the few times it’s really paid to have a comic enthusiast as a roommate. The FF storyline was expertly drawn, and the stories were just what I was looking for: ridiculous. Every single villain either turns into a super-monster or has a super-monster laying-in-wait to do its bidding. Giganto, the massive whale?! Moleman and his total control of underground elements?! Super-Skrull?! I can’t make this shit up, but someone else didn’t have a problem doing it. Every threat extreme, every situation dire, every character a symbolic sculpture of the best of mankind. In other words, fantastic.

The Obamanator vs. McCAINia (a better name than before) – Round 3

I have forgone the scorecard for this debate. Sometimes it is best just to watch and take things in and see how you think and feel at the end.
Round 1: Obama 26, McCain 21
Round 2: Obama 19, McCain 16
Round 3: Winner, TKO – John McCain

This guy?

This guy?

McCain won the debate, although his final speech wasn’t as punched up as it should’ve been. He was at his most clear and direct, Obama was at his weakest. Perhaps this has to do with sitting, not standing, particularly if you lend any credence to my categorization of Obama as a very strong Stage Presence. It is worth noting that while McCain fluctuated during the 3 debates, Obama got steadily worse. His first was his strongest. I suspect this is due to Obama’s lead. He didn’t need to come out with anything new, only to maintain. At times, though, he seemed like the political equivalent of a basketball team, ahead by, say 4 points, with a minute left in the game. Their goal isn’t to score quickly, it is to take as much time off the clock without letting their opponent get any closer. Will this help or hurt him with swing voters, or does it matter to his campaign at this point?

McCain’s line that “I’m not George Bush…” was a huge success, a fantastic point to make, and something he should have said, oh, 3 months ago. And tonight, he should have repeated it and reiterated it more. Once is never enough in politics. Now the question is, was tonight’s win for McCain enough to gain my vote?

No. Obama is better on the Economy, Health Care, Education, and I think once he gets into the White House, he’ll see that his views about leaving Iraq on his time table are too simplistic, and he’ll either change them to something very similar to what McCain suggests, or else he’ll make a bigger mistake than, according to him, the war in general was. Or, the quality and dependability of the Iraqi military forces will happen to coincide with his time table, and he’ll luck out.

On the other hand, the annoying majority of liberals underestimate McCain and, yes, Palin, and if they get elected we’ll see nearly as much reform, great foreign policies, Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to improve, the economy will rebound in different ways, and spending will be cut. Either way, we’re in for something new, something better, and progress. Just because liberals overcompensate their dislike for McCain compared to how cool they think Obama is doesn’t mean Obama is more qualified. In fact, in 4.5 hours of debates, Obama hasn’t been able to prove he’s stood up to his party nearly as well as McCain. And before a Democrat asserts that this is merely because Democrats aren’t wrong as often as Republicans, allow me to laugh uproariously in your general direction. As many have pointed out, we were promised amazing changes and improvements in 2006 when Democrats gained a majority. Two years later, an extensive showing of hands will amount to nothing in particular.

Your thoughts, as always, would be welcomed. Please share. And let’s leave ‘Joe the damn Plumber’ out of this one, shall we? Man has a job to do.

The Obamanator vs. McCain Machine: Round 2

Final Score: Obama 19, McCain 16

Hmm… Not as interesting as the first debate. Lower scoring.
Game 1: Obama 26, McCain 21
Game 2: Obama 19, McCain 16

So, we’ve had one debate in a Standard Theatre – Proscenium Arch, more or less; this second debate was in a Black Box Thrust. I’m hoping for the third debate to be In-The-Round. It would at least reflect the shape in which the candidates speak much of the time.

The Town Hall format was supposed to be better for McCain, and he did well in terms of speaking directly to the questioners. He had a very nice moment with a fellow serviceman. Obama was slightly shaky at first, but he took a cue from McCain and got more comfortable.

The news was the same. I cringed when McCain brought up meeting with foreign leaders “without preconditions” because it was handled last debate. I cringed when Obama settled on the notion that McCain is just like Bush. Both are mistaken, both are ploys.

Here’s what it comes down to: Obama has more stage presence.

He moves better, talks more casually. He’s easily a better performer than McCain. In a Town Hall debate, he wins. Both men got on my nerves by constantly taking much more time than they were allotted. Both deviated numerous times from the specific question asked and just blathered on.

We could go on and on about the debate. Both made clear points much of the time, sometimes got bogged down, made a few errors. Oh well. What I want to know is, what do you think of Obama’s Health Care Plan vs. McCain’s Health Care Plan? Or do you see much of a difference?

The Obamanator vs. McCain Machine: Round 1

This note pertains to tonight’s Presidential Debate, the first of 3 between the two candidates, not including the Vice-Presidential Debate. Hopefully that sentence did inspire the thought “It’s an election year?”. If you were unable to see the debate and/or did not have the ability to record it, come to my apartment, I will watch it with you.

The two-part questions is, what did you think of the debate and how did you think the candidates handled themselves? Please feel free to disagree with me (of course you will feel free… this is democracy!)

What a much better election we have this time around. In every way, these candidates are superior to their predecessors. Of that I am pleased. I took a lot of notes tonight, which I’ll get to in a moment, and I also kept score. My incredibly scientific method was as follows: any time I think a candidate makes a compelling, interesting or insightful statement, he gets a point. A tally-mark, to be more specific. Written by hand. In pen. On a blue-ish notepad. I did my best not to look at the score during the debate, and I think I mostly succeeded. Essentially, I am treating the debates like a best of 3 series in sports, the winner of which will receive as a grand prize: my vote.

The final score was Senator Obama – 26, Senator McCain – 22

Obama started out with a solid 2 point cushion, and it went back and forth for about the first 45 minutes. He jumped out, and though in the first 10 minutes or so he seemed to dodge some questions and talk around the matter, he quickly hit his stride and made great points. McCain made very good points, but it seemed to me that toward the beginning, his points were more general and vague, while Obama’s had a specificity I found encouraging. The subject was the current financial crisis, and I will not attempt to give a play by play of all the points covered. Suffice it to say, both candidates’ presidencies will be affected by it, and both seem to oppose the idea of a “non-reviewable” $700,000,000,000.00 bailout. Smart men. They also talked about Healthcare plans, both of which I think will be improvements in some way.

In the middle of the debate, McCain actually took the lead. As noted, specificity is important to me. I want details. Details show thought. They reveal insight while generalities (such as this entire blog) seem to have a limited depth of knowledge. McCain’s war experience is, to say the least, impressive. That man knows his stuff. So does Obama, but in this instance, the hype is correct: McCain is more experienced. He’s got decades more than Obama, which means a deeper understanding of a history not merely learned, but lived. It also means he meanders off into storyland a bit too often, detailing that time he was in Russia, or the time he met with…

The most interesting head to head moment was the discussion of whether or not to grant meetings with hostile leaders. Obama’s point: “This notion that by not talking with people we are punishing them has not worked.” He’s right. It hasn’t. McCain counters that to have face to face meetings with these leaders, who espouse hateful doctrines, is to legitimize their cause. He’s also right. You don’t meet with a fanatical loon. You meet with people of power. To meet is to implicitly grant them power and may be giving them a stage. But. In the end, I agree with Obama when he said that the President of the united States has the right to meet with whoever he wants, whenever he wants, and that it doesn’t make sense to meet with enemy groups only after they’ve agreed to change.

From that point on, McCain seemed to lose a step, about the final 30 minutes. He got repetitive. He wasn’t wrong in what he said, it was all fine, some of it was a bit too much like his campaign speeches, but he seemed to get defensive very quickly. At one point, Obama was trying to respond to him, and McCain just cut him off. Jim Lehrer, the Moderator, had already attempted to move on, so rather than take more time, going round and round on a tiny point, Obama just said, “It’s fine. Jim, let’s move on.” He got a point for that.

In general, in terms of ACTUAL spoken, detailed policies, these two men are very similar. The distance between their policies is the time it takes to rewrite the other candidate’s policies with a different sentence structure. Both candidates, I think, are very aware of this, and in order to have something to debate about, they put together teams of interns – hundreds of 20-something idealist left- and right-wingers – to find contextless soundbites of the other candidate to be used to create the illusion of a large expanse between them. A chasm of inches is what it amounts to. It was like an improv scene at times. One or the other would pull a random quotation out of their pocket and then try to weave it into the fabric of the current subject. And every time, the other candidate merely said, no, you’re misrepresenting me, here’s the real story. Mini-conflicts were introduced and resolved in mere seconds. This is called politics.

The real difference, as far as I can see it, is that Obama, at this point, is cooler. He’s more popular. He seems calmer. Every time I see him ON the campaign trail (I hate that term, by the way), he looks tired, his sentences have big gaps in them, he seems to lose his train of thought. I think the ordeal of the Primaries and now the General Election are starting to wear on him. But tonight, he looked well-rested, he spoke clearly, defined his points, did a nice job. If there is one man I WOULD send in to have a meeting with our enemies, it’d be him, because I have the sneaking suspicion, he could communicate with them better than anyone.

On the other hand, McCain may be the smartest man alive. He is very savvy, he has no trouble keeping up with Obama in terms of the manner in which he speaks, how he communicates. And I could not detect one hint of his age hindering him in any way. At least not tonight. He has a tendency to get too heated at times, he can be a bit aggressive; although, this skill just might be handy when you’re dealing with all the daily slog the President goes through. And, if Obama for some reason cannot convince our enemies, McCain will explain to them the details of their impending demise and then enact it upon them. And he won’t screw the pooch the way Ole W. has.

Looking forward to the next debate… 1 piece of advice to both men. Talk to EACH OTHER for a change. Look at each other, address each other. Who knows, you might just get into a bi-partisan discussion!


It Has Come to This

May 2017
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