Archive for March, 2008

Bush First Pitch—Boo!

March 31, 2008

Does anyone else out there feel, as I do, that Bush probably worried a lot less about being booed as he marched onto the field than looking like he can’t throw a baseball? Self-image comes way before public opinion for him, no?

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The Sober Reality for Clinton

March 21, 2008

There’s a fantastic article on Politico, commenting on the media’s failure to adequately report the harsh reality of Clinton’s delegate situation.

The reality is she really cannot win this nomination. The odds of it happening are minuscule. I can understand her hanging around waiting for Obama to implode in scandal, or have a heart attach or something, but I’m not sure why she needs to pull-down the party while she hangs around.

Consider:

  • Clinton would need between 63 and 65% of all remaining pledged delegates in order to win the majority of pledged delegates. She may win that big in some states (maybe, in some), but she’s not winning that margin of all remaining delegates.
  • If the superdelegates were to break ranks with the votes of the electorate, the party would simply collapse with ourtrage. So getting the superdelegates to override a majority of pledged delegates is also highly unlikely.

So why the hell is Clinton being so aggressive? Could it be, per my post of a couple of weeks ago, that she plans to trash his candidacy and then step in and claim that he can’t win because his candidacy has been trashed? Does she have some secret, surprise cache of as-yet undeclared superdelegates she’s sitting on, to announce after a big win in Pennsylvania?

No. My theory is this: the Clinton campaign isn’t looking at this rationally at all. They hear that the math makes it impossible, but they just can’t face reality. I think Hillary actually thinks she can campaign her way to the nomination, when the grim truth is that she can only get there with a spectacular Obama flame-out. And no, the Wright thing doesn’t even come close to qualifying. She’d need a Spitzer-like shocker.

If Obama doesn’t win the election in 2008 I’ll be blaming Hillary, not dirty GOP tactics or Nader. Obama should be traveling overseas and meeting with foreign ministers. Our nightly newscasts should show Obama being greeting by adoring throngs of Europeans, and Asians, and Africans. He should be meeting with soldiers and hammering-home his economic plan. Instead he spends his time fighting-off Hillary while abiding by his own pledge to run an honorable campaign. Meanwhile, Hillary runs the least-honorable campaign by a Democrat in recent history, and cries foul every time Obama defends himself.

I’m losing patience. Others are too.

Music Discovery: Bon Iver

March 20, 2008

What will my eleven week-old think of me when he’s a music-obsessed teen and learns that, even though I hold a degree in music, I never seem to listen to it much? Poor kid will be disgusted with me, and rightly so. Perhaps as disgusted as I was with my parents, who had a lovely stereo system but owned only “Sgt Peppers” and the entire Herb Alpert catalog—and never listened to either.

Right or wrong, I’m blaming my musical complacency on lack of “discovery”. The few times I’ve been excited about music again (music other than my own compositions, that is) has been when I discovered something new. So I’ve decided to go hunting for new music because I have no intention of being as out-of-it as my own parents were, and it won’t be that long before my son grows old enough to realize how out-of-it I currently am.

So I’m taking the Wit Happens blog readers along for the ride. Here we go!

I find a lot of interesting new-to-me music via the KEXP song-of-the-day podcast. Recently in their feed:Bon Iver (on MySpace, and bio here).

Bon Iver

Bon Iver (pronounced eevair, as in French for winter, intentionally misspelled) is the brain-child of Justin Vernon, and emerged from his spending a Thoreauan, isolated winter in northern Wisconsin as he faced-down some inner turmoil. Rather than simply “hibernate”, which had been the original plan, he recorded nine songs, which he released as the Bon Iver album For Emma, Forever Ago.

The first song, Skinny Love, is just beautiful. An mp3 is here (can’t vouch for its legality). You can also stream the song on his Virb page, and his MySpace profile. His album, For Emma, Forever Ago, is on Jagjaguwar records, and is available digitally on Amazon, as is the CD.

For Emma, Forever Ago, album cover

A trained musician such as myself should be well capable of explaining why a piece of music appeals to him. Over the years I’ve drifted further and further away from music that appeals to me intellectually, and back toward music that appeals on a visceral level. That was going to be how I avoided the question of why I like this piece of music, because I honestly didn’t have it in my really analyze this piece of music. Seems at odds with the spirit of the song, anyway. But then I learned the back story of Justin Vernon and his isolated winter, and the appeal began to make sense even without an analysis of the music. I’ve been most prolific with my own songwriting (and most successful) during introspective times of my life, when I’ve intentionally isolated myself. I’m not going to compare my own music to this one song or album, but at least the motivation and the recording style are familiar to me. Maybe that’s why this song reaches me.

Purists who get off on hearing the imperfections of hand-crafted recordings—first-take kind of stuff, complete with creaks & pops—will love this album. So will people who get off on super-promising “freshman” releases… you know, people who love to be disappointed by sophomore releases.

Anyway, please enjoy this song, Skinny Love, and check back soon for other “discoveries”, new and old. Meanwhile, here’s Justin Vernon performing Skinny Love at the Bowery Ballroom:

Obama “More Perfect Union” Speech – Winner

March 18, 2008

Obama’s “More Perfect Union” speech was strong. I still think it’s best for his campaign if the discussion isn’t about race, but if it must be—and it feels like certain parties are determined that it will be, then this was a great way to handle it. Obama has a way of positioning himself above the fray. Compared to this speech, any race-related bickering, or questions about Obama’s former pastor, looks petty and meaningless. On balance, this will be good for Obama’s campaign. More importantly, it’ll be good for America. This was a discussion American needed to hear, and Obama might be the only person who could have delivered it.

Hillary More Polarizing Than Bush

March 18, 2008

I’ve posted recently on how the issue of race is a damaging topic to the Obama campaign, and how Hillary exploits this—either instinctively or, probably, as an explicit campaign tactic. For the past several weeks, as a result of Hillary’s efforts and those of other Obama-detractors, race has been the primary focus of the public discourse in the Democratic race. This doesn’t work in Obama’s favor.

One of the reasons I can’t stomach Hillary, outside of her ugly campaign tactics, is the fact that she represents more of the same bitter, partisan division we’ve seen since Bush won the nomination in the 2000 race… and before, when Bill Clinton was in office.

My distaste for the Bush administration stems almost entirely from its polarizing effect on us, the electorate. (Note: that’s just the source of my “distaste” for the administration. The source of my burning resentment is all policy-driven).

Hillary, hated at least as much by the right as Bush is hated by the left, continues the polarization that started with Bill and has become progressively sharper with every election since then. However, one can make the argument that she is even more polarizing than Bush, since she is determined to polarize her own party, as well as the electorate in general.

Every time I see her disingenuous smile, that fake laugh, I get the same visceral, angry feeling which had hitherto been reserved for our evil, corrupt, war-criminal president. If Hillary were the nominee, I still don’t think I could vote for McCain, but I honestly can’t see myself caring enough to go the polls for Hillary.

Olbermann’s Special Comment on Hillary

March 13, 2008

Olbermann’s “special comment” about the Clinton campaign this evening offers no real, long-term help for Obama. As I wrote last night, the more the discussion is about politics and about race, the worse it is for Obama and thus, the better for Hillary.

Obama needs to get back to his staples: talking clearly and eloquently on subjects that resonate with the not-yet-jaded, or even with those of us who want to be less jaded. One of the most remarkable things I’ve noted about Obama is his ability to stay above the fray. He’s got to get back into the inspiration business and get off defense. If he has to, he can mention the latest attack, deflect it with a wave of his (as he does so well), and move on to something that drives up his “positives”. People eat that up!

The (Realistic) Future of the Semantic Web

March 12, 2008

I’ve written recently on the Semantic Web, mostly to explain what it is. There’s no shortage of articles—academic and otherwise—describing the possibilities and virtues of the Semantic Web. A very rosy picture is painted in those texts. I’ll tell you why they’re mostly wrong.

There are at least three big problems facing the development of a semantic web for the masses:

  • Financial disincentives to publishers
  • Standards challenges
  • Chicken-and-egg problems for apps & content

Publishers’ Disincentives

The Worldwide Web was envisioned as millions of text-based pages all linked together via hyperlinks. The vision was predicated on the idea that, rather than duplicate content, a publisher would simply link away to another person’s article. The problem was/is that publishers don’t make their money if you click away to another site (only if you click to an advertiser). So the spirit of the original vision for the Web was in conflict with the Web’s only realistic revenue model for publishers. Thus, the Web developed along different lines.

The same pitfall awaits the Semantic Web, only several-fold greater. A central tenet of Semantic Web is that web content should be discoverable, and so must be marked-up in such a way as to be legible—and therefore useful—to multiple applications, without human intervention. With an ad-supported model (and we’re still a long way away from reasonable subscription-supported web services) publishers must be sure that they maintain control over the display mechanism of their content so that they can deliver ads with their content. If all meaningful content is marked-up for easy ingestion then publishers lose their revenue streams. Any other publisher or service provider can very easily lift the content and repurpose it, index it, catalog it, analyze it, or do anything else with it. So publishers will specifically avoid marking-up their content in semantic web-friendly ways.

To see evidence of the underlying problem we can look at the world as it is today. Think of the existing Web as a dramatically simplified version of the Semantic Web… which it is. To Google, the Web is a collection of a resources with a single, simple content type (text) which is machine readable (to web crawlers, which index the text).

Google studiously avoids creation of content themselves. Their very mission—to organize the world’s information—contains the admission that the content doesn’t belong to them. And the conflict that exists today between Google and content publishers is an example, in microcosm, of what we can expect in a semantic web scenario. For their main consumer product, the Google search engine, they crawl the Web, discovering and indexing others’ content, and there are plenty of companies who resent the power Google has amassed on the back of their content; Google controls discoverability, targeted advertising on the way in, behavioral ads based on expressed interests (the DoubleClick deal is an antitrust problem that the FTC and EU really didn’t adequately explore), and that’s just from search. Other of Google’s apps are far more invasive into publishers’ content (e.g. Google News Search, Google Reader).

In a semantic web, publishers’ content can magically float off to whatever application is able to ingest it. No publishers will voluntarily markup their content to make it easier for others to repurpose. Content isn’t really king right now, and a semantic web demotes it still further.

Standards Challenges

The Semantic Web will require agreement on a myriad of different standards. With no 800 lb. gorilla to mandate standards, all the would-be standards creators, large and small, will fight it out and come up with multiple, conflicting, parallel standards. Note what’s happened with RSS. We have RSS and Atom, and there are still others. RSS-reading applications must support both.

Multiple standards create a barrier for application developers: parallel-support and upgrade headaches. And multiple standards create a disincentive to publishers: choosing one standard cuts out applications that operate on other standards. Problems on both sides of the equation

Chicken and Egg for Apps and Content

Lastly, and most obviously, if there’s no killer app there’s no incentive for publishers to markup their new or existing content to be semantic web-friendly. And if there’s no content, there’s no incentive for developers to spend energy creating apps for content that doesn’t exist.

This isn’t the highest hurdle—in fact I have a project idea in my pocket which I believe could overcome this and other challenges (!)—but for now this is a barrier to the organic growth of the Wemantic Web.

History Repeats

Like the Semantic Web, our current Worldwide Web had its root in idealized vision—and by the same guy who “invented” (envisioned, really), the Semantic Web: Tim Berners Lee. The Web we actually developed diverged dramatically from the original vision, I’d say mostly for the better. For the Semantic Web, we don’t yet know exactly what it will look like. It may well exceed the vision; or it could fail to achieve expectations (or never materialize). But I think we can at least be confident that it won’t look anything like the original, idealized vision that’s touted by Semantic Web purists today.

Clinton Slash-And-Burn Strategy – Part 1 – Create Division

March 12, 2008

This blog was supposed to be about politics and technology, business, and the Internet. But it seems every night there’s another news item that demonstrates just how ugly the Clinton campaign is willing to get, and I just can’t resist commenting.

So, in the news tonight: Geraldine Ferraro Gate. Clinton might not have sent Ferraro out to make her comments, but the fact that Clinton won’t dismiss Ferraro isn’t an accident. It fits nicely into what I’m now calling Hillary’s Slash and Burn Strategy. Specifically, it addresses one of the fundamental tactics of that strategy:

Create Division

In this case, the division is about race. Here’s why they think it’ll work: The more the discussion is about race, the less white Americans will focus on matters of actual substance. If you’re white, and the first thing you think when you think Obama is “black”, then you’re automatically separated from him… he’s one thing, and I’m a different thing. Even if you’re not racist, you’re still not thinking about how you’re with him, or how you agree.

So the more often the Clinton team can remind you that he’s a black candidate (they’d probably say “the black candidate”—which sound like that’s his constituency, not his color), the better they think it’ll be for them. Problem is they don’t have too many opportunities to play this game because talking about race, as Ferraro discovered, can draw accusations of racism.

The America’s-Not-Ready Shim-Sham

Hillary’s happy to have you thinking that America “isn’t ready” for a black president. She knows that even if Mr. and Ms. White Voter have no problem with a man of color in the oval office, their belief that the rest of poor, benighted America isn’t ready yet, will prevent them from “wasting” their votes on a candidate who simply can’t win.

Oops, I smeared him again

Hillary is very willing to cripple the long-term prospects for the Democratic Party if she thinks she can get elected in the process. Her Slash-and-Burn Strategy looks something like this:

    1. Make the delegate race about the superdelegates, and their having autonomy, which they should exercise “for the good of the party”
    2. Do whatever it takes to stay in the race until the convention, no matter how damaging to the party in the long term
    3. Along the way, trash Obama as a candidate. Pull out every ugly GOP, Karl Rove strategem on the books and just sully his candidacy, no matter how unjustly (eg, pretend you could have just a shadow of a doubt as to Obama’s religious affiliation).
    4. By the time the convention comes along, you make the case to the superdelegates that his candidacy is in tatters (oops, my bad!) and that after the terrible pummeling he’s taken, there’s no way he can win.

      By creating division within the party and among Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers, she advances items 2 and 3.

      I don’t want to call Hillary a “monster” or anything (although it’s clear that calling an opponent much worse has not consequences in Hillary’s campaign staff). I’ll just say that she’s running an ugly and selfish campaign.

      Why Obama Over Hillary

      March 11, 2008

      The Real Buyers Remorse

      George McGovern was on Colbert tonight. He pledged his support for Clinton back in October, and he’s too much of a class act to turn back, but he qualified his statement by saying that he hadn’t known Obama back then.

      That’s a pretty remarkable thing to mention as you’re telling the world who you’ve backed! But that’s basically what happens to voters in general. They like Obama better after they have a chance to get to know him.

      First, they rued the day Bill Clinton left office (or rather, the day Bush took office). Then Hillary ran, was called a front-runner, and suddenly they thought they have a good chance of being able to say Clinton and White House in the same sentence again. They got on-board.

      But then they get to know Obama a little bit. They hear him speak, they get inspired, but more importantly, they believe that he believes the things he says. I think we all realize that Hillary, maybe even more than Bill, says what she thinks she needs to say. It’s all political. If she has a position, it’s a considered position which might have gone the other way had there been a sufficient political payoff on the other side (e.g., her vote for the Iraq war). Obama has his beliefs, they guide his positions and policies, and he is who he is.

      And so after voters have a chance to see this dichotomy, they waver. Eventually, if Obama has sufficient time to campaign in the state, they get buyer’s remorse for their early decision to back Hillary and start crossing over.

      Where’s My JFK?

      The so-called “greatest generation” had Roosevelt. Our parents had JFK. Where the hell is our once-in-a-generation leader? This guy might well be it. He could be that and much more. The first president I knew, when I was a kid, was Nixon. I’ve had Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush. Due respect to president Carter, but that’s a pretty pathetic string of names. It’s time we had our JFK.

      Hillary talks a lot about what a historic time this is. We’ll have a black nominee, or a woman nominee. But then she also envisions either her or Obama getting past McCain, and that’s going to be more historic still. So Hillary hopes to make history simply by getting elected. That’s her one, singular, all-consuming goal: get elected president.

      Don’t you get the feeling that Obama’s presidency will be historic not because he’s a man of color, but because of the deeds he will do, the change he can engender, and the fact that he can lead us to accomplish some genuine good in the world?

      He’s a politician, but he’s a politician in order to put himself into a position to do something. Ambition is Hillary’s only motivation.

      Potential For Greatness

      In tonight’s interview, Colbert tagged McGovern as an idealist, identified Obama as the same, and then asked McGovern which presidents he thought were also idealists. McGovern cited Jefferson and Lincoln. Hillary’s campaign would offer this as evidence that an idealist can’t be elected in our modern world. I would say that we’re pretty damn close to doing just that, and if the third idealist president is anything like the last two, we could be in for a once-in-a-century kind of leader. I’m not saying Obama’s definitely the next Lincoln, but he’s the only politician I’ve known in my lifetime whom I genuinely felt had the potential to leave that kind of legacy.

      Hillary, by contrast, wants to be “ready on day one”. A once-in-a-century leader like Jefferson or Lincoln doesn’t ever suddenly (or gradually) become “prepared”. Leaders like this just are. But for Hillary, I think that a work-a-day, forgettable presidency might well be served by her preparation of one and a half terms in the Senate, plus knowing in advance the optimal layout for furniture in the White House.

      So our choice might boil down to this: consider potential epitaphs. “Hillary Clinton: first female president” versus “Barack Obama: greatest president since Lincoln”. Again, there’s no guarantee, but lets at least try for something more here.

      Come on people, we can elect a woman next time… maybe even one without all the baggage.

      Why Zipcar Rules

      March 10, 2008

      On my other blog, which is about the advent of fatherhood, I once posted an argument in favor of my wife and I spending $750 for a baby’s stroller, on the grounds that it provided an alternative to spending more than $180,000 in car and parking-related expenses here in parking-deprived Boston.

      So we bought the stroller and justified it by continuing to use short-term car-rental company, Zipcar, rather than buying a car. We love Zipcar.

      Today, Consumer Reports published new data that calculates car ownership costs for every model they track. So I looked-up the little Subaru Outback model Mary and I have been eying, and did some math*. I learned that for what it would cost us to own and park a Subaru Outback, we could:

      • Use hourly Zipcars for 20 hours per week (using the hourly rate)
      • Reserve Zipcars for 11.5 full days per month (using the daily rate)

      For us, this isn’t even close. In all of 2007 we spent just $788 on Zipcar. In 2006, we spent a lavish $1267, which included unlimited use of a small SUV for the week of our wedding. On average over those two years, we spent a bit more than $1000, which was less than 10% of the projected cost to actually own and park a car. Sorry, but the extra convenience of never having to return the car on a deadline just isn’t worth 10 times as much money.

      We continue to love Zipcar.

      *To find my annual cost to own an Outback, I took the total 5 year cost of ownership published by consumer reports, added a conservative $325 per month for parking, and a modest 10% increase for living in Boston (insurance, fuel, repairs all cost more here in Mass, especially in town). To find my annual cost for Zipcar, I took their annual fee ($50 here in Boston), and prorated their membership application fee ($25). For hourly-rate Zipcars I used $11/hour (we usually use $10/hour cars, but sometimes we go for the $12/hour models). For daily-rate Zipcars I also split the difference between $78/day and $85/day cars, and used $81.50