Friday, January 30, 2009

The Problem of Pork

During the leadup to the Nov. 4 election last year, both candidates promised to take a strong stand against earmarks and pork in Congress. Now that Obama's stimulus plan has made its way through the House, it's clear to see that pork isn't going to be swept out of the U.S. government quite as easily as the electorate might have hoped.

The stimulus bill, which in its House of Representatives form constitutes $825 billion in spending, apparently is a mish-mash of some legitimate projects and a hell of a lot of pork for congress members to take home to their respective districts and purchase votes with. It's been resoundingly decried as a purely partisan piece of legislation that lacks any clear cohesive unifying philosophy, as Peggy Noonan writes for the Wall Street Journal.

To paraphrase King William "Longshanks" from Braveheart, the trouble with congress is that it's full of congressmen.

The economic crisis is a fact for the entire United States -- it's a national problem, and it has to be solved with a national perspective in mind. It's a fact of the system, however, that legislators have no motivation to look at things with the "national good" in mind -- instead, what's important to them is doing whatever it takes to impress the voters in their districts. Which, of course, means standing on some urban renewal project somewhere in BFE Kentucky and making pronouncements about how they're going to squeeze those Washington-types for more local money and drawing roars of support from their constituencies. This makes legislating in Congress look more like a game of "Hungry, Hungry Hippos" than legal craftsmanship.

Add to this the fact that the stimulus bill was already going to be gigantic, and that it was meant to be targeted at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, and... voila, you've managed to turn the Capitol into a big Chuck-E-Cheese at happy hour.

It's futile to hope that Congress will change, and for a lot of good reasons, it ought to be set up the way it is. But when it comes to a national emergency like the economic crisis, how do you solve the Prisoners' Dilemma created when hundreds of self-interested people get into a room to decide how to divvy up a very big pie?

I suppose if I had a feasible solution, I would probably have a very nice job right now. As it is, I don't... but I will say that the unfortunate product that this stimulus bill has become shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.


Sunday, December 21, 2008

A new holiday tradition

I'm not certain about this, but I am ready to bet that the phrase "the War on Christmas" was coined by Fox News' enfant terrible Bill O'Reilly, who, along with his simpering, platinum-haired cohort John Gibson, have made a new Christmas tradition (as well as, in Gibson's case, a fair amount of money) out of complaining that Christmas is "under attack."

By who? Well, liberals, of course. Liberals, one is led to believe, are taking over the country in what is ostensibly a renewed effort to force homosexuality, Leninism (that's code for universal health care), and godlessness into the impressionable and as-yet-pudding-like brains of your children. Yes, they're out there, those damn Reds... and they're battling as we speak to take the Christ out of Christmas.

This, of course, is utter nonsense -- and I am of course not the first one to point this out. But let's examine the American tradition of Christmas, now as in decades past, and find out exactly how much of the Baby Jesus is apparent in the way we, as a society, have celebrated the Savior's birth.

First, there are the old traditions. There's the timing, of course -- December 25, eerily close to the druidic celebration of the Winter Solstice (December 21), which is the shortest day of the year. According to Christianity Today, December 25 was settled on around A.D. 273 after a long controversy over whether to even celebrate the Nativity at all, and was eventually chosen to coincide with two pagan holidays: the natalis solis invicti (birth of the unconqered sun) and the identified birthday of Mithras, an Iranian god considered the "Sun of Righteousness." Both gods were popularly worshipped by Roman soldiers. Church fathers, apparently eager to make the transition to Christianity (which had recently been elevated to the status of "official religion of the Roman empire") as smooth as possible, decided to pick a feast day that already was being used as one by the people.

So, in terms of timing, we've already departed from the scriptural account (which lacks any mention of a specific date anyway). How about the Christmas tree?

Well, according to the hivemind responsible for Wikipedia, the Christmas tree is most likely a derivative of a Germanic pagan tradition linked with the Festival of Lights, celebrated on the Winter Solstice. The Wikipedia entry claims further that the practice of decorating evergreen trees as part of the Christian festival was initially decried as a pagan practice when it arrived in the United States in the 19th century... but apparently, the novelty caught on and its origins in the pagan wilds of medieval Germany were forgotten, replaced with new metaphors -- the evergreen tree, rather than representing the cycle of seasons, now represents Christ's triumph over death. Fair enough -- symbols are only as good as the notions they evoke in their viewers.

On to more recent additions. In a memorable Saturday Night Live skit, Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" decries Santa Claus, pointing out (to great comic effect) that there's only a transposition of letters separating the names "Santa" and "Satan." That aside, it's with the adoption of Santa Claus that the less-benign elements of the American tradition of Christmas begin to creep into the picture.

Saint Nicholas was traditionally honored on the anniversary of his death, which is recorded as having occured December 6, A.D. 346. He was a bishop who lived in Lycia, which is now Turkey, and had a "reputation for secret gift-giving," as well as having been a miracle-worker. Older traditions of Saint Nicholas Day involved placing small gifts in the shoes that children left out overnight on December 6. Other than being a Christian saint, Nicholas (in his own Greek, Agios Nikolaos), had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus.

Christmas gift-giving ostensibly has something to do with the visit of the Magi, who are said to have brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Holy Family shortly after Christ's birth (their visit is traditionally celebrated January 6, on the feast of the epiphany). But Nikolaos of Lycia somehow got dragged into the mix, and this eventually was mutated into the decidedly non-Christian notion of a "kindly elf" who lives at the North Pole flying around the world distributing gifts to children who have been good all year.

Other cultures have interpreted the myth in different ways. But America's version of Saint Nick -- the plump, jolly, bearded grandfatherly-figure in red and white who works all year in his magical toy shop -- dates back only to the late 19th century (much like the Christmas tree), and was given his place in popular culture not by any church or faith, but by Coca-Cola (the company has since switched its holiday advertising mascot, and now uses polar bears).

It would no doubt be possible to make an exhaustive list of "Christmas Traditions" that have no roots whatsoever in the birth of Christ -- but hopefully, these few examples have made my point. There's very little of Christ to "take out" of Christmas in the first place, and to the extent that Jesus is remembered during the holiday, he is certainly not under any kind of real attack. The only place the story is actually celebrated is in churches, pageant plays, and in homes -- and there's nothing even resembling a credible threat to any of that (perhaps with the exception of school pageant plays, but really, how horrible would it be if those were to go away?).

What is under threat, however, is the assumption that everyone in the country celebrates Christmas in the way that Christians do. Jews, for example, who constitute a sizable minority among Americans, understandably want little to do with Christmas, and instead celebrate Hanukkah, their own festival of lights (which also has been corrupted over the centuries and now has its own cultural over-emphasis on gifts).

Simply saying, "Merry Christmas" to some stranger during the holiday shopping season -- and shopping really is what the season is about -- does little or nothing to recall the birth of Jesus, and the rest of the Christmas traditions have nothing to do with Christ anyway. Substantively, what changes if Wal-Mart or Target clerks politely call out, "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"?

Lots, if you're troglodyte like John Gibson or Bill O'Reilly. Apparently, it's phrases uttered by store clerks that inspire the bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked, Norman-Rockwell-esque youths populating our country to ask their parents questions like, "Mommy, who was this Baby Jesus guy?" Clearly, Toys-'R'-Us employees have a crucial role to play in the catechesis of the young. In all seriousness, though, why should anyone rely on the rest of society to instill religious curiosity in children? If faith is important enough that store employees remind kids of the importance of a particular holiday, shouldn't the subject have been brought up in the home by the time a child is old enough to start asking theological questions? Or are we to believe that parents, by and large, are mute on the subject of Christ until their offspring broach the subject?

On reflection, it might even be possible to understand if this indeed were the case. Christmas, as celebrated in the U.S., runs from the "Black Friday" (which, this year, resulted in at least three shopping-related deaths) to December 24, and has much more to do with bargain-hunting than Savior-celebrating. The cherished traditions have decidedly un-Christian heritages, and Jesus has indeed been relegated to an afterthought -- but not by any nefarious liberal scheme. Indignation over the new, alleged "War on Christmas" is sheer lunacy, because it is based on a notion as fundamentally fictional as Santa's eight tiny reindeer.


Monday, December 15, 2008

What did we learn?

Well, it appears (so far) that I've survived my first semester of graduate school. Now, I suppose, would be as good a time as any to look back and figure out exactly what it is that I've learned.

The first thing I learned was what political science isn't -- it is not comparative history, it isn't advanced civics, and it isn't about rhetoric. This may come as a surprise to no one other than me, but apparently, political science is actually science -- sort of.

Even practitioners of the "social sciences" (sociology and political science, for example) are careful to note the distinction between their field and the so-called "hard sciences," such as physics and chemistry. While the "hard sciences" study the interactions of physical bodies and particles and predict their behavior, doing the same thing to human societies is a little fuzzier... humans, as it turns out, are somewhat less predictable than hydrogen atoms.

Enter statistics, which I got a great introduction to this semester. Skipping over the boring, number-y parts, the value to using things like "normal distributions" and large sample sizes is so that you can get a reasonably good predictor of behavior to a certain level of probability. There are also handy ideas like "rational choice theory," which makes it possible to do a little hand-waving ("Okay, let's just say everyone's going to act in his own perceived best interest when making choices") and aggregate behavior over a whole system. To the extent that it works, it's a useful idea.

Deeper than that, however, is the issue of a philosophy of science. What exactly is "scientific method," and what is it meant to accomplish? Are we adding to the growing pile of human knowledge, or are we merely filling out the latest paradigm by which we understand the world? That still seems to be an open question, so I don't have an answer. But it's an interesting line of thought to follow down the old rabbit hole.

I've had at least one friend suggest that these courses aren't doing me any good -- that this field of study is encouraging my left-leaning tendencies. I don't really blame her for coming to that conclusion, but it isn't the case. My professors haven't made their personal political beliefs particularly secret, but the course material is almost completely sterile of normative political rhetoric or propaganda. Instead, our readings and discussions have focused entirely on theories of political phenomena -- given X circumstances, why does Y happen? That kind of thing. The suggested answers normally involve complicated algebraic formulas, and they tend to treat the workings of political entities like parts of a car... avoiding pronouncements about what is right and wrong.

So I haven't drawn my political views from the coursework -- although I do feel as though I have a better understanding of how things work, and that understanding has helped to reinforce notions I already had.

I'm looking forward to next semester. Now that the initial shock has passed, I think it'll be easier to keep my head above water.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson

Since I wasn't able to find a theater near here showing it when it had its run, I only just now got around to seeing Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the post-humus documentary on the man whose writing has served as a touchstone and inspiration to my own career and outlook.

The film is, like a lot of documentaries, an amalgam of stock photos and archival video footage, focusing mainly on the events in Thompson's life that shaped his admittedly bent approach to journalism. The directors also staged a few dramatic recreations to highlight moments of the film -- the opening credits roll to a Hunter Thompson stand-in riding a BSA motorcycle at breakneck speed down the California oceanside highway, set to a raucous soundtrack and Johnny Depp's voice, reading Thompson's sequence on "an honest run."

It's a moving picture that does a rather good job of attempting to explain Thompson the man -- as distinct from the "Gonzo" character he created for himself (exploited some years later, and during Thompson's lifetime, by Gary Trudeau's "Uncle Duke" character in "Doonesbury"). It's not altogether flattering -- Thompson's reputation had equal parts of revolutionary writer and legendary substance abuser mixed in, and there were points where the latter outweighed the former.

The interviews come from many of the people who knew him in different aspects of his life and career -- his first wife, Sandy, decries his 2005 suicide, and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner tears up and has to halt the interview when it comes time to discuss his old sometimes-friend and sometimes-enemy's demise. But we also hear from contemporary "New Journalist" Tom Wolfe (whose Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, drew from audio tapes Thompson had made while covering the Hell's Angels for his own first book), and then-Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who, surprisingly, had many warm (if sometimes alarming) memories of the writer. Former Sen. George McGovern (whose disastrous campaign against the incumbent Nixon Thompson followed and turned into a book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail, '72) and singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who took Thompson in after his first wife asked for a divorce, also contribute. 

The end of the film features footage from Thompson's funeral at his Owl Farm in Woody Creek, Colorado interspersed with a younger Thompson walking the grounds of the expansive rural property and explaining how he'd like to be sent off -- he wanted his ashes fired out of a gigantic cannon, shaped like his trademark double-thumbed fist, over the place he'd called home since his move to Aspen at the end of the 1960s. This wish he was granted -- Johnny  Depp, who spent three months with the "Good Doctor" prior to playing him in Terry Gilliam's film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reportedly financed a large portion of  the funeral.

It's a good watch. There could perhaps have been more time spent on the substance of Thompson's work, but perhaps a more personal look at him as a human being is exactly what we were missing in the catalog of Thompson-related memorabilia. As an avid Thompson fan, I have to say I was moved nearly to tears by the end. I felt, once again, remorseful, that there is no more Dr. Thompson to look to for that strange mix of hilarity, rage, and madness that somehow helped at least some of us better understand the crazy world we live in.


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pirates!? reports that pirates have hijacked a supertanker off the coast of Africa.

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNN) -- A hijacked supertanker carrying up to $100 million worth of crude oil -- the largest vessel seized to date in an escalating regional piracy crisis -- was believed to have anchored off Somalia Tuesday, its operator said.

The Sirius Star's crew of 25, including British, Croatian, Polish, Filipino and Saudi nationals, are reported to be safe, according to Dubai-based Vela International Marine.

"Our first and foremost priority is ensuring the safety of the crew," said Vela President Salah Kaaki. "We are in communication with their families and are working toward their safe and speedy return."

The Saudi-owned vessel was seized on Saturday more than 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya in what Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called "an outrageous act."

An outrageous act? Yeah, you might say that. Seriously, this is the kind of thing that seems pulled out of a summer action flick.

For a long time, it seemed to me, the term "pirate" was increasingly being shifted to people sharing music and software illegally over the Internet. Cheers to these entrepreneurial types for taking the word back!

Actually, this is pretty scary, and I'm sure the families of the crew (who are all reportedly "safe," although I think that's a bit of a stretch for the term) wouldn't appreciate me making jokes about it.

What this actually reminded me of was a conversation I had a year or so ago with my brother Zach. We'd been sitting outside talking about the world and our lives and what we were eventually going to do with ourselves, and he brought up the concept of the Merchant Marine.

"These guys actually go and fight pirates off the horn of Africa," he said.
"Wow... can you imagine how cool a job that would be?"

We decided that it would probably be extremely dangerous, but it would be a great response for when you get asked about your line of work at a bar. Further, we figured that if everything goes pear-shaped for us, we'll just have to sign up with the Merchant Marine. Fighting pirates isn't a bad fall-back plan.


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Am I dreaming?

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
-- Barack Obama, Chicago, Nov. 4, 2008

There's no easily-referenced historical anecdote to bring up right now, no comparison I could make that I think could actually sum up what I just watched happen. Barack Obama has been elected the next president of the United States.

I have this cerebral knowledge that I just watched history happen, but I'm still having a hard time getting my mind around it. Maybe I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, though. There are plenty of other places to read run-downs of why what happened really happened, and I certainly don't need to contribute to the pile -- what I can tell you is how I wound up where I am, a "blue-gummed" liberal as an Army pal from Alabama recently referred to me, stunned that my country has actually done the right thing. I hope I may be granted the indulgence of making this "all about me" for a post.

I grew up observing passionately conservative values, which I equated -- as my parents still do -- with the Republican party. I knew God was watching me in everything I did, and as I grew older, I realized that society would be better the more it fell in line with the Catholic ideology I'd learned.

I graduated in 2002 with marginally decent grades and a degree in journalism from a stridently Catholic school, still espousing those same religously-grounded notions of right and wrong, and still equating those with the Republican party -- which had led me to vote in 2000, in Ohio, for George W. Bush, the "compassionate conservative."

Still feeling some nascent nationalist rage over the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, I joined the Army a few months after graduating college. I had been utterly unsuccessful in my half-hearted attempts to find a job as a reporter, and I shipped off for basic with a contract to become a "public affairs specialist" on August 25, 2002.

Basic training was at Fort Benning, Georgia, and when I arrived, my coddled, comfortable world was taken away from me, and I learned what it was like to be afraid. I suppose that's the key to military training -- showing you constant fear and teaching you to operate even in the face of it.

Most of basic is a blur, now. But there's an image that has stuck with me: in late September, I was outside my company's barracks, trimming hedged with a pair of rusty shears on a Sunday afternoon. My battalion was located near the edge of the basic training area, and a set of railroad tracks ran past it. While I was out trying to appear busy while enjoying the suddenly pleasant weather, a long train passed by -- several locomotives towing a seemingly-endless chain of flatbed cars loaded with Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, all painted desert tan.

Our drill sergeants had told us since the beginning that we'd all be going to war within the next few months. They told us that we better listen, because if we didn't, we'd wind up being hamburger on the side of some Iraqi road (they all took it as a foregone conclusion that that was where we were headed).

Months later, in March of 2003, I crowded into my new company dayroom at Fort Meade, Maryland, to watch the beginning of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" (which was later retroactively dubbed "OIF 1") -- U.S. tanks rolled into and across Iraq from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, and we saw brief video of sporadic firefights interspersed with breathless after-action commentary from battalion commanders on the ground, whose men had fought valiantly against a foe all too eager to surrender.

It took a tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division and a subsequent reassignment to Fort Konx for me to finally realize what a horrible mess we were in -- war in Afghanistan had started before I'd joined, and the Iraq war was ramping up deployments of my more combat-oriented friends at an alarming pace. And our leaders were dissembling -- we'd gone in to Iraq on the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and those weapons hadn't materialized. Worse, the team sent in to oversee things had hideously botched matters. All this I had been willing to forgive -- after all, I remained a loyal soldier, true to the oath I'd sworn in the Syracuse federal building some years before...

I, Ian Boudreau, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
But it eventually occured to me that the officers appointed over me, and to a much greater extent, the president of the United States -- one George W. Bush, who we've heard precious little of in the last three months -- weren't all they were cracked up to be. And the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was Bush's failed nomination of Harriet Myers to the United States Supreme Court.

There's not much to dig up here on how I felt when it happened -- it actually seems to have stimulated a long period of inactivity (which never seems to have entirely gone away, actually). But it was a chink in the armor of what I'd up till then held as unassailable beliefs -- in American exceptionalism, in the inherent goodness of capitalism, and in our right to do pretty much whatever we wanted because of those things.

Today, I watched a country -- a people -- tell the rest of the world that we're sorry for telling it to go fuck itself whenever it doesn't get along with what our leaders want to do. Today I saw that Americans, by a large margin, are upset that we've lost standing in world opinion, that we want to get along, and that we don't want to be seen as the rednecks of the globe.

The last thing I want to do here is to take anything away from Obama, who has accomplished something that couldn't even have been conceived of 50 years ago in Selma, Alabama. He has been accused of the most fatuous group of lies ever concocted about an American presidential candidate (early on, he was suspected of being the antichrist), and Americans spoke and said "We want him anyway."

As much as it is a validation of Senator Obama's platform, it's a vote of disgust and no-confidence for the ideals the Republican party has come to espouse over the past decade. We want forgiveness from the rest of the world, because we're interested in being a helpful and benign part of it, not an opportunistic, vendetta-oriented warmonger looking to depose and hang inconveniently popular rulers in areas we have economic interests in. We care about the way our soldiers behave, and we care about whether the prisoners we take are tortured. We care about social justice, we care about the poor, we care about veterans, and we're angry that getting sick in America means going broke for most people.

And the operative phrase there is, "We Care." Maybe I'm a short-timer compared to some of the life-long protestors out there, but god!

Barack Obama is going to be our president in January, and no other explanation makes sense other than, Americans really do care.

It's late now. This could have done better justice both to Obama's win and my own history. Maybe I'll write more down tomorrow. It was an interesting night.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Open Letter to French's

Dear Makers of French's Mustard:

I've got to give it to you guys, you really have embodied the American dream -- and you've done it with a name like "French's"! Seriously, you guys have to be laughing every time you take a check to bank -- the irony is just too delicious.

Much like the mustard you create every day. It's really amazing that you've been able to make this bright yellow substance and convince us all that it's "mustard," when around the world, people are spreading spicy, brown, seedy stuff all over their krauts.

But I digress. I didn't intend for this letter to spark off some kind of mustard war between yourselves and the Grey Poupons of the world. What I wanted to do was implore you to take a different kind of action; namely, get rid of that vinegar piss that comes out of your squeeze bottles whenever I'm trying to make a sandwich.

This is 2008, guys. There are iPhones, the Internet, and space-age polymers everywhere you look. You can't swing a dead cow around in this country without hitting a Wi-fi enabled hotspot. And yet, every time I want to make a goddamned roast beef sandwich, I have to suffer through the humiliation of one of your French's mustard squeeze bottles planting a diarrhea fart on my lunchmeat.

Get on this one, guys! Come on! I know you've got the money for it -- I haven't been to a July 4th barbecue and not seen a dozen of your mustard bottles everywhere, just waiting to make a PPPPFFFFTTTTTSSSH sound over someone's hot dog. Hire some good R&D guys and get rid of that crap.

Well, that's how I feel, and I wanted you all to know about it. I don't want to come across as hateful -- I'm merely suggesting you make an improvement to an already great product. Thanks for listening.



Lies and Bullshit: On the Campaign Trail, '08


Will it be Sen. Barack "Hussein" Obama, the shadowy character who has emerged out of nowhere, whose birth certificate no one can find? The Marxist, Muslim terrorist sympathizer with ties to political dissidents in Kenya and whose father might even be Malcolm X?

Or will it be Sen. John "Maverick" McCain, the cranky old Navy pilot who calls his wife the "C-word," abuses vacationers in Fiji with William Faulkner performances and whose hobbies have included crashing fighter jets?

Well, you read it here first, folks: the answer is neither, because neither of the two men described above exist.

Phony stories about presidential candidates are nothing new. Rumors circulated about the Clinton family in the lead up to the 1992 election, and George W. Bush was the subject of much fantastical speculation in 2000.

But in a world of news driven by sites like and the Drudge Report, these idiotic fictions are getting harder and harder to keep out of the mainstream discussion. It's end users who determine what the news cycle is -- they click on stories, moving them up in the "most viewed" list, or they forward vicious emails around the country. Phony news makes it from coast to coast before the first pot of breakroom coffee has percolated.

For anyone interested, it's usually easy enough to demonstrate these "email forward" stories as blatant falsehoods -- you've just got to wander over to or, both non-partisan sites devoted to identifying blogospheric baloney. But as easy as it is, and as much time as I've spent trying to convince people that Obama probably isn't the antichrist, these stories persist.

First and foremost, I think a large part of it has to do with wish-thinking. We are, by nature, not particularly scientific when it comes to things we want to believe. If I were a McCain supporter (I'm not), my initial reaction to a story that painted Obama in a negative light would be to believe it, and the same would go vice-versa. We seem tuned to filter out information that doesn't fit nicely with the worldview we already have, and anything we find that supports what we already think is automatically attractive.

So I do understand that element, but only to an extent. Some of these phony campaign stories are getting ridiculous -- beyond the point where it's easy to explain them away as simply fitting into existing worldviews. Questions about Obama's citizenship are still circulating -- even though there's plenty of evidence to show he was born in the United States, and none that he wasn't (for a great run-down of a few of these "unreported" stories, check out this item on Politico. My buddy Brad sent it to me). Attacks on McCain's military record are similarly out of order -- you can disagree with the guy, but there is simply no call whatsoever to question the integrity of his service in the Navy.

And I don't think it's the candidates themselves who are responsible for these slurs against each other -- in some cases, it's the people working on their campaigns, such as the McCain campaigner who scratched a backwards "B" in her face in Western Pennsylvania and claimed she'd been assaulted by a black man "enraged" by her McCain/Palin sticker.

But in most cases, it's just the "Joe Six-Packs" around the country, trying to weigh in on the election, thinking he or she has just found the next big story. We've arrived at the world Andy Warhol promised us, where everyone gets to be famous for 15 minutes. Normally, we seem content with viral YouTube videos, but during an election year, the contest seems to be finding out who can create the biggest, baddest meme about the election. And if it takes off, you're guaranteed press coverage... once something gets emailed enough, apparently there's no way for the networks to ignore it.

Maybe, though, it isn't about fame -- maybe it's because political campaigns are, considering the amount of hype and attention they get, perhaps some of the most boring things that go on in the world. Sure, there are the buses, the conventions, the whistle-stops and the stump speeches (and let's not forget the nail-biting debates). But to really get down to the nitty-gritty, what you're looking at is hundreds of pages of proposed tax plans and budgets. And who wants to read those? What these lies and exaggerations people are sending each other might be is a way they've found to superimpose a dramatic narrative onto something that actually bores them to tears. It's not as if everyone is making up their own stories -- but a lot of us are emailing them to all our friends. And maybe that just goes to show that we do want to participate in the election -- but that we've found the actual meat of it about as exciting as eating a bottle of Ritalin and then watching The English Patient.

Personally, I'm burnt out on it. I can't wait for Nov. 5. And I decided to STUDY this shit!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekends are overrated

For a variety of reasons, I spent Friday night at home drinking too much wine, which resulted in a Saturday that was characterized on my part by a hangover and hatred of the universe.

That was unfortunate, because what I'd planned to do was work on/finish a paper that's due tomorrow in my world politics class -- our assignment was to pick a data set and write a paper about it. No guidelines were provided as to length, and there were no specific instructions on what to include in the paper -- "Everything" was about as good as it was going to get.

I'd never written a data paper before. Using a method not much better than throwing a dart at a spinning globe (I've heard people sometimes plan their vacations this way -- but maybe that's just in cartoons), I wound up picking a data set called "Extra-State Wars," part of the Correlates of War Data Project, based at the University of Michigan.

I won't bore you with the details of the paper -- which involved looking at an Excel spreadsheet of 108 cases with 35 variables each -- but if you want to read it, you can email me and I'll send it to you. Maybe you're an insomniac and need a little help falling asleep, I don't know.

Precious little of it got done Saturday, so I spent most of today (Sunday) pecking away at it. I have no idea of how to use most of what Microsoft Excel does, and the analysis software normally used to examine stuff like this was far away -- in Binghamton, which I didn't feel much like driving to. So instead, I printed off the 12 sheets needed to contain the whole set, taped them together, and stuck the whole thing to a wall in my room. I then used several high-lighters to mark parts of the data I felt were important, then counted them up and plugged them into a calculator (for special effect).

The result is a 16-page pile of paper and ink that represents what I think may be the most boring thing I've ever written (unless you count this post, which at least at this point is way shorter). An informal poll I did after I finished the rough draft (Dad read it) produced positive results -- the paper was described as "scholarly, I think" by 100 percent of the respondents who said they'd read it.

I have no idea how well it's going to go over with my professor. Like I said, he wasn't very specific about what he was looking for, so my aim was to show that I'd looked hard at the information and maybe drawn an inference or two from it. I'm unsure of what else to do with it, short of folding up the high-lighted, taped sheets currently hanging on my wall and handing that in.

The underlying point here is that I'm still working on re-adapting to "school mode." Writing isn't hard for me, but writing papers isn't really like writing, at least, not in the way I've been used to doing it for the past six years. It's hard not to feel useless, too, when what you really need to spend your days doing is reading books with complicated titles and articles pulled off JSTOR and Lexis-Nexus.

Don't get me wrong, I like my current field of study -- although it's maybe a bit different than I'd been expecting. I had this idea about political science in my head -- something of a cross between a civics class and sitting around in togas listening to Plato talk about "the Republic" -- and it turns out that there's a lot more numbers and talk of "scientific method" involved than I'd initially expected.

Which is fine -- it's making me think in ways I hadn't before, which, I'm led to believe, is the whole point of "school."


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cherry picking

It's impossible to tell what's actually going on anymore.

Fox is hammering on Obama's connection to Weather Underground founder Bill Ayers, while (most) other news outlets seem concerned with the report of Palin's "abuse of power" in the "Troopergate" firing in Alaska (by the way, and I'm sure Bill Maher's already hit on this in his "New Rules" segments, but can we quit naming scandals with this "-gate" scheme? Watergate was actually the NAME OF THE HOTEL!). Meanwhile, Obama's supporters have dismissed the allegations of the candidate's connection with Ayers, just as Fox and the GOPers have already begun minimizing the significance of the Palin fiasco.

Examples of the different responses:

On the Huffington Post this morning, a headshot of Palin is accompanied by huge, red "Drudge Report" style headlines screeching the news that the probe has found her "guilty of abuse of power."

On National Review Online's The Corner, editor Kathryn Jean Lopez posted under "Confused" that she's puzzled by the furor over the report, since Palin apparently didn't do anything illegal.'s Hugh Hewitt ignored the Palin debacle and drew more attention to the Obama-Ayers connection, which is what some of the Corner posters are talking about this morning.

And that's just three major blogs. There are plenty more.

So if the media were bad before, they're worse now -- blogs, of course, have always led the charge, and now there are so many of them on either side that people can read enough of one angle to feel like they've actually got a clear picture of what's going on. Well, if all you read is Michelle Malkin, Hugh Hewitt, and National Review, you haven't gotten a well-rounded picture. The same goes if you spend all day on the Huffington Post and DailyKos.

Me, I have some reading to get done for my world politics seminar Monday (although not much, since we didn't get to much of what I'd read already last week), but in the meantime, I'm going to put together another cheesy horror movie live-blog. That'll probably be forthcoming later today.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Bad news for Palin

Looks like the panel looking into Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's alleged abuse of power haven't come down on her side:

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CNN) -- Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin abused her power as Alaska's governor by trying to get her ex-brother-in-law fired from the state police, a state investigator's report concluded Friday.

"Gov. Palin knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda," the report states.
This is not good news for the McCain campaign, particularly since we're so close to V-day. McCain's already trailing Barack Obama in the national polls, which stand tonight around 51.9-46.6 percent. His attacks on Obama's past association with William Ayers seem to have backfired, and according to this story, his hard-core followers are none too pleased... campaign journalists have reported having racial slurs yelled at them, and during a Palin stump speech earlier this week, a member of the audience screamed "Kill him!" loud enough for the microphones to pick up when the governor mentioned Obama and Ayers. "Rage" seems to be growing in the GOP base.

Eight years ago, Bill Clinton's eight-year presidency came to an end, but the protracted legal battle over the Gore/Bush vote lasted into December -- when the Supreme Court determined that Bush had won in Florida. There wasn't any kind of immediate shock or catharsis on November 5, 2000 -- nobody really would know what was going to happen for another month or so. I'm hoping we avoid a repeat of that fiasco this time around, but the tenor of the campaign has turned even more vicious this time around, it seems.

Today was the deadline for voter registration in New York, and a friend and I went to make sure we'd gotten registered. 2000 was the last time I voted -- I was in Ohio and in school, and I'd registered so I could vote for George W. Bush. That was a long time ago, and since then I finished college, did five years in the Army, worked as a reporter briefly, and have started on a new degree -- and my personal politics in the meantime have done a 180-degree turn from the conservatism I left undergrad with.

In all honesty, I agree with the late George Carlin as far as voting goes, more than anyone else. He made the point that the only time you have no reason to complain is when you DO vote... he, on the other hand, stayed home on election day, and therefore can't be held responsible for any of the incompetent idiots voted into office; whereas the chumps who go out and pulled the levers are the ones who have no right to complain about what they'd done.

I don't have much of a point here, and if I did, it was to go out and vote this November -- but I managed to shoot that point squarely in the foot with that last paragraph, huh? That notwithstanding, I do think it's important to cast votes in elections -- plus, you won't just be voting for the president, but for the state representatives, district attorneys, judges, coroners, mayors, and whoever else is looking for a job running your government. At least don't give the bad ones a free pass.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Debate 1

I only caught the end of last night's two-hour presidential debate between Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. Judging from the reaction in the polls and papers this morning, though, it seems like I didn't miss a whole lot -- the consensus seems to indicate that both men stuck to their talking points, neither made any huge gaffes, and both (according to managed to mangle the truth several times each.

I was actually looking forward to the start of the "debate season," since out of almost two years of campaigning (these keep getting longer and longer, don't they?), there've been precious few times where the candidates actually have to face each other and talk about their positions. But after seeing some of last night's debate and then reading the subsequent reactions, I remembered, "Oh yeah. This is a campaign debate. Nobody's changing their mind about anything."

The editorial pages are all echoing the meme that "there was no 'knock-out' blow," and there wasn't. And pundits, columnists, and voters on both sides believe the candidate they already supported won. Republicans are saying that McCain was able to attack Obama on foreign policy (saying he was "naive" in his first reaction to the Russia/Georgia crisis -- by the way, what happened with that?), and Obama's crowd has been pointing out McCain's apparent inability to make Obama seem any less polished on world affairs, and their own candidate's strength on domestic issues.

As the debate wore on in Mississippi, the New York Yankees were beating the stuffing out of the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park -- Cody Ransom hit two home runs and Johnny Damon hit one, leading the Yankees to a 19-8 victory over Boston... which would be great news for me, except for the fact that the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs a week ago. The only good news is it keeps the Red Sox from the AL East title -- they'll have to make do with the wild card slot.


Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, I've read over my last couple posts a few times and I can't stand them. I'd delete them wholesale, but I'm keeping them up just to maintain some sense of personal integrity.

It may have been the beers I drank (before the one immediately proceeding this especially) or the classes I'm taking in high-minded theoretical models of comparative politics -- or some combination of both -- but the end result is an embarrassing mess of pseudo-intellectual, poorly-thought-out bullshit that I'm not happy I put my name on.

So what I'm doing is promising not to ever pretend to sound scholarly on here, ever again. It's annoying and pretentious and it makes me come off like an asshole.

As for an update, well -- I'm a happy guy. Things are going well. Classes are demanding but I'm starting to feel like I'm actually learning something (other than how to write like a jackass).


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pigs and lipstick

"I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals." -- Winston Churchill

"I am very proud to be called a pig. It stands for pride, integrity and guts." -- Ronald Reagan

"[A] single pig can consume two pounds of uncooked flesh every minute. Hence the expression, 'as greedy as a pig.'" -- "Bricktop," Snatch, Guy Ritchie, 2000

"Hey, a sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but I'd never know, 'cause I wouldn't eat the filthy motherfucker. Pigs sleep and root in shit. That's a filthy animal. I ain't eat nothin' that ain't got sense enough to disregard its own feces." -- "Jules," Pulp Fiction, 1994

The poor pig does not get a very fair shake in literature. The pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) are stand-ins for communists (Snowball is said to represent Trotsky, and Old Major is said to be either Karl Marx or Vladmir Lenin or a combination of both); in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, the severed pig's head is regarded as a savage diety by the eventually animalistic boys who find themselves marooned on the island -- along with their hapless, glasses-wearing compatriot, the chubby boy known as "Piggy."

Pigs then, one might guess, are fortunate to be blissfully unaware of the metaphors we use them in. Pigs are, genetically speaking, strikingly similar to humans, so much so that their organs in some cases can be used in humans as transplants. Despite their reputation as "filthy animals," both by pop culture (see above) and religion (see the Torah), pigs are naturally rather fastidious about their upkeep and hygiene. 

But their reputation as dirty, loathsome things persists, and it is as such that they are used in our present-day analogies.

"You can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig," said U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, talking about U.S. Sen. John McCain's recently-rebranded campaign of "change."

Obama has since come under fire for the comment. Republican boosters (and, I'm sad to say, the news media) nation-wide have crowed that the presidential candidate from Illinois was most certainly referring to McCain's pick for vice president, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who, during the Republican National Convention in Minnesota, joked that the difference between a bulldog and a "hockey mom" was lipstick.

Therefore, the logic seems to run, Obama must have been calling Palin a pig.

It isn't the case (Obama was actually referring to McCain's economic policy and deriding him for suddenly painting himself as a "change" candidate), but that's almost beside the point. What has happened is that attention has successfully been diverted from the question of "Where do the candidates stand on such-and-such a policy" to "who called who what barnyard animal?"

This makes my current field of study -- political science -- supremely frustrating. What's the point in learning about this stuff if ("We The") people pay about as much attention to the political process as pigeons do to traffic patterns?

I'm just a student, and a new one at that, in political science. But in my first few weeks of study, the subject of voting behavior has come up in discussion. It's difficult, apparently, to accurately model voting behavior, because mathematically speaking, there's really no reason to vote -- there's no "margin." Any individual voter has an infinitesimally small chance of actually having any impact on the eventual outcome of a national election.

It follows, then, that doing any serious research into what candidate will actually influence policy the way one wants is subject to the law of diminishing returns -- you're putting more time into a choice that still has a near-zero impact. Why bother?

But people do vote, and perhaps that's a phenomenon that can't be easily represented by equations comparing x and y. People still (less so now than in years past, maybe) understand that voting is their one shot at participating in democracy -- although the time they spend balancing one choice against another may be severely curtailed.

My guess is that both parties are aware of this, and are (more or less successfully) campaigning with it in mind. It's a little frightening, since there are two months between the party conventions and the general election, and at least two of the days in the interim have been spent figuring out the importance of an offhand reference to a pig and the makeup it might wear. Out of the 54 days between the close of the Republican National Convention and November 4, that's 3.7 percent of the time... which of course is time we aren't spending talking about issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the country's flagging economy, energy policy and education.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin's RNC speech

Alaska Governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin delivered her speech in St. Paul tonight at the Republican National Convention, and I have to say I was impressed, with perhaps a couple reservations.

Her family, including the overly-scrutinized 17-year-old daughter Bristol, joined her on the space-age stage as she discussed bringing what she called "real change" to Washington. In a comment leaked to the press pool ahead of time, she dismissed charges of inexperience, saying that being the mayor of a small town was "sort of like being a community organizer... but with actual responsibilities," an obvious barb directed at Sen. Barack Obama's own relatively recent beginnings in politics.

Speaking about her own experience as Alaska's chief executive, she said she had used her veto power to save state taxpayers about a half billion dollars in costly legislation proposed by the state legislature -- but she didn't mention any of the bills specifically, which means now I have to go look them up.

She criticized Obama (and really, the Democratic Party) for allegedly planning on adding billions of dollars in tax burden to the American economy, and talked about Obama's intention of raising the "death tax" (formerly known as the "Estate Tax") and further burdening American taxpayers.

It's worth noting here that Obama's stated position on taxes is to protect tax cuts to the low and middle classes, and reverse only the tax cuts Pres. George Bush instituted for the extremely wealthy -- a rather important distinction. But when have campaign speeches ever stuck entirely to the facts?

Palin made some hay with the notion that a Democratic administration would be for "bigger government" and "irresponsible spending." Again, these are bad things, but Obama's (who she never named) stated position is to eliminate these things, too. And it's also worth noting that it's been under a Republican president and administration that the federal deficit ceiling was increased to $9 trillon (which Obama as an Illionois state senator voted against), the apparently worthless Department of Homeland Security was established, and countless billions in federal dollars were awarded in no-bid contracts (here's looking at you, Kellogg, Brown & Root and Blackwater).

This is not to say her speech was anything less than impressive. Palin spoke with confidence and poise, and I can't not like her. She has a commanding presence and voice, and, unlike Sen. Hillary Clinton, doesn't sound like an alien from Mars Attacks!. It's clear that Palin is a leader and is comfortable in that role. 

On the subject of her running-mate, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Palin praised his record of service in the U.S. Navy and his steadfastness during his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. She spoke of him, not surprisingly, as a change-oriented reformer with a maverick streak. It makes me wonder what happened to the bill he authored a few years ago that would have made the Army's Field Manual on the interrogation (read: torture) of war prisoners standard for all U.S. agencies (including the CIA, which proved to be too restrictive for Vice President Dick Cheney's tastes). McCain seems to have backed off on that position in the two years since it fizzled.

Some of Palin's material seemed designed to distance her campaign from the sitting president -- certainly a good move, given Bush's past 20 months of 33 percent or worse job approval rating. But she also made a few pandering moves, such as bringing up the stock-standard Republican paper tiger of the shadowy al Qaeda operatives lurking just beyond our borders and plotting our destruction. She derided Obama for being worried about them "not being read their rights," which drew jeers and applause from the crowd. Call me crazy, but I am and remain a big fan of due process. Oh, and the Constitution.

There's plenty more to say about the speech, but it's late and I have statistics homework to attend to. Sarah Palin is a remarkable candidate and, by all appearances, clearly cut out for an executive role. That her speech departed from or ignored certain truths is to be expected -- since, after all, this is all really just theater.