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Friday, July 31, 2009
It's Friday
Time for an important message from our friends at Old Glory Insurance:

Thursday, July 30, 2009
Where Have You Gone, Joe The Plumber? Our Nation Turns Its Loony Eyes To You

Officer James Crowley isn’t a household name yet, but he’s getting there. Crowley is the cop who arrested Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates for disorderly conduct in his own home, sparking an entirely predictable and tiresome culture war debate centering around race and justice. The usual suspects rallied around Mr. Crowley, declaring him a hero to their cause; he is already being talked up as the next Joe the Plumber.

But wait! What was wrong with the old one? Come to think of it, where is the old one?

It’s true, our bullet-headed everyman has been hard to find lately. The last we saw our steely-eyed protector of working-class values, he was a newly-minted war correspondent for Pajamas Media during last winter’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

His qualifications? What are you, some kind of wise guy? He’s a straight-talking real American, buster, not one of those foreigner-loving squishes who work for the mainstream media. In Joe’s words, “I think media should be abolished, from ah, you know, reporting”.

Nothing so eloquently sums up the conflicting tensions that threaten to undermine the Fourth Estates’ responsibilities to our republic.

By late winter Joe was photographed wearing a hideous polypropylene garment called a Snuggie, which resembles a comfy, loose-fitting straitjacket. Members of the so-called conservative “movement” took turns having their pictures taken in them, presumably preparing for the day when they’d get to sport the real thing.

On April 15, he took part in a tea party protest in Michigan. In early May, he made a campaign appearance on behalf of New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Steve Lonegan. Later that month, he weighed in on the gay marriage debate, telling Christianity Today, “People don't understand the dictionary--it's called queer. Queer means strange and unusual. It's not like a slur, like you would call a white person a honky or something like that.” He added that he has nothing against “queers”, even counts some as friends, not that he would let them anywhere near his kids. In response, Meghan McCain observed that Joe is “a dumbass.”

In June, he spoke at a political event in Wisconsin, where he asserted that the “founding fathers knew that socialism doesn’t work. They knew communism didn’t work.” This was especially prescient of the framers, since the first volume of Das Kapital wouldn’t be published for another 78 years.

Joe has certainly had his stolid face out there, so how come he’s not making headlines anymore?

It’s possible that the novelty has simply worn off. Joe’s heroic memoir, Joe the Plumber: Fighting For the American Dream, hit the bookshelves in December and sank without a trace; it’s currently ranked #123,687 in Amazon’s rankings. Joe’s iconic skull was also used to front a fundraising operation called Secure Our Dream, which blatantly asked for money without offering any specifics on how it was to be used. Alas, the secureourdream.com web address now appears to be unoccupied.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Prince Hamlet Makes A Decision

After months of public hand-wringing, Brett Favre made his announcement the day before training camp starts: he's not coming out of retirement and signing with the Vikings:

Tarvaris Jackson and offseason acquisition Sage Rosenfels were expected to vie for the Vikings' starting position until the New York Jets released Favre. As time went on, it seemed more and more likely that Favre would sign with the Vikings, especially after he underwent surgery on his injured biceps and started working out with a high school team back home in Mississippi.

"It was a rare and unique opportunity to consider adding not only a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but one that is very familiar with our system and division," Vikings coach Brad Childress said in a statement. "That does not detract from the team that we have. As we have consistently communicated, we feel good about our team and they have put forth a tremendous effort this offseason preparing for the season ahead. With this behind us, we look forward to getting to Mankato and getting training camp underway."

Yep, certainly Jackson and Rosenfels believe Childress has every confidence in them, after he spent the summer playing footsie with a 40-year-old emotionally unstable quarterback with a bad arm. Childress is like the General McClellan of the NFL: nobody talks bigger and accomplishes less than he does.

Look, we all know this guy isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. But even he must realize he dodged a bullet today. Imagine Favre starting for the Vikings in their home opener. He throws five picks, cries in the locker room on national television after the game, and announces the next day he's retiring again. They'd put a straitjacket on Childress, they wouldn't let him walk around out in the open.

People seem to have a weird trust in Childress, maybe because he sounds very confident and is always hinting that he's keeping mum about some secret strategy that he's about to unleash. But the guy is a stiff. You could give this clown the keys to the '86 Bears, he'd go 10-6 and would get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs.

Sunday, July 26, 2009
The Humans Are Dead

Maybe it's just my imagination, but how come so many scientists seem eager to usher in a new era where the world is run by computers possessing superhuman intelligence? Just look at the stuff the New York Times is publishing these days:
Impressed and alarmed by advances in artificial intelligence, a group of computer scientists is debating whether there should be limits on research that might lead to loss of human control over computer-based systems that carry a growing share of society’s workload, from waging war to chatting with customers on the phone.

Their concern is that further advances could create profound social disruptions and even have dangerous consequences.

As examples, the scientists pointed to a number of technologies as diverse as experimental medical systems that interact with patients to simulate empathy, and computer worms and viruses that defy extermination and could thus be said to have reached a “cockroach” stage of machine intelligence.

[....]The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

[....]The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which smart machines would design even more intelligent machines was proposed by the mathematician I. J. Good in 1965. Later, in lectures and science fiction novels, the computer scientist Vernor Vinge popularized the notion of a moment when humans will create smarter-than-human machines, causing such rapid change that the “human era will be ended.” He called this shift the Singularity.

But don't worry, humans. Computer experts are working to make the machines more user-friendly. One researcher...

....recently demonstrated a voice-based system that he designed to ask patients about their symptoms and to respond with empathy. When a mother said her child was having diarrhea, the face on the screen said, “Oh no, sorry to hear that.”

For some reason, this reminds me of James Mason in North By Northwest. Mason was the quintessential Hitchcock villian -- urbane, cultured, and utterly without remorse. "Very sorry, old man," he might say. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to kill you now, otherwise I'm going to be late for the opera." Now our computers are being groomed to do the same thing.

Friday, July 24, 2009
Negging Alexander The Great

I've been rereading Plutarch's Age of Alexander, and this is one of my favorite passages:

In the previous year a congress of the Greek states had been held at the isthmus of Corinth: here a vote had been passed that the states should join forces with Alexander in invading Persia and that he should be commander-in-chief of the expedition. Many of the Greek statesmen and philosophers visited him to express their congratulations, and he hoped that Diogenes of Sinope, who was at that time living in Corinth, would do the same. However, since he paid no attention whatever to Alexander, but continued to live at leisure in the suburb of Corinth which was known as Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him and found him basking at full length in the sun. When he saw so many people approaching him, Diogenes raised himself a little on his elbow and fixed his gaze upon Alexander. The king greeted him and inquired whether he could do anything for him. "Yes," replied the philosopher, "you can stand a little to one side out of my sun". Alexander is said to have been greatly impressed by the answer and full of admiration for the hauteur and indepenence of mind of a man who could look down on him with such condescension. So much so that he remarked to his followers, who were laughing and mocking the philosopher as they went away, "You may say what you like, but if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes".

Interestingly, this encounter parallels a modern dating technique: "the neg". It's a tactic where a guy throws a desirable woman off balance by off-handedly criticizing something about her -- the way she dresses, the way she talks, her nose or her laugh. The idea is that, like Alexander, attractive women are used to having guys fawn all over them. And like Alexander, they get intrigued when a guy disses them instead.

Conor Friedersdorf is suitably appalled, and you can read what he has to say about it here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Keep The Heckler Close, You Know Them Smokers'll Test Ya

So according to NPR, rapper Jay-Z is like a 19th century sea power, because as an up and comer he took out 50 Cent who had previously taken out Ja Rule, but maybe things have changed because the rap world has coalesced into a 21st century unipolar model rather than a 19th century multipolar one, so now we have Jay-Z at the apex, just like the United States today, so even a punk like The Game is kind of like China or India or something, a developing nation that can do some damage doesn't pose an imminent threat.

I dunno, you figure it out. I'm going back to bed.

Monday, July 20, 2009
Destination Moon

On this 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, it's interesting to see all the bloggers who pay homage to the importance of the event, even though most of them were not even alive when it happened.

I was four years old at the time, and it's one of my earliest memories. On that summer night I remember standing in the front yard with a toy pair of binoculars in my hands, staring up at the Moon. The Moon was full that night, or nearly so; and I remember the excitement that gripped the country that day. You might think that for a four-year-old child everything would seem novel and exciting, but even I understood that something unprecedented was taking place.

My parents let me stay up to watch the first moon walk. It happened around 10 pm Central time, and I recall being distinctly disappointed by the TV images. It was difficult to see what was going on, and in my four-year-old way I supposed the camera was filming from the other side of the LEM, underneath the ship, so that only the astronaut's feet were visible on the other side (in fact the contrast between light and shadow was so stark, and the TV image so grainy, that only the lower portion of the LEM ladder was clearly illuminated).

I watched all the subsequent missions. As a pre-schooler I had the luxury of time, so I watched the Saturn V liftoffs (they were almost all launched around 9 am, with the exception of the last one, which I remember had a spectacular nighttime launch). I feel fortunate now that I have those memories.

One thing that's been missed in all the 40th anniversary hubbub is the fact that one movie in particular actually helped sell the idea of space travel to the public. That movie was George Pal's Destination Moon (1950).

Fanciful movies about travel to the Moon had been made, of course, such as Melies' A Trip To the Moon and the Korda brothers' Things To Come, but those movies didn't take the idea seriously.

Destination Moon was dead serious. The film was written by Robert A. Heinlein and tried to tell an exciting tale that hewed to absolute accuracy in the scientific details. No bug-eyed aliens, no meteor showers, no cat women of the Moon.

Buck Rogers it wasn't, but would ticket buyers swallow the conceit that this nutty idea was feasible? So unfamiliar was the idea of space travel to the moviegoing public of 1950 that a couple of odd concessions were made by the filmmakers. First, a Woody Woodpecker cartoon was integrated, designed to explain to potential investors of the lunar project (and by extension the audience) the basic principles of space flight.

In addition, a surrogate for the audience was included in the crew, a simple-minded Brooklynite named Joe, added to the ship's company as a last-minute replacement. So naive is Joe that even when suiting up for a space walk he doesn't understand that there isn't any air outside the ship ("There's plenty of room for it", he reasons) and it's difficult for a viewer today to grasp that most Americans in that situation would have said the same thing in 1950.

In terms of story, Destination Moon manages to be both dull and melodramatic. In terms of the science, it gets the details wrong but is actually quite accurate in conveying the basics of what a lunar excursion would be like. And in fact, a fair number of wide-eyed kids in the movie theaters of America, witnessing the launch and triumphant return of the Luna in 1950, grew up to become the aeronautical engineers who built the rockets that went to the Moon. Because of that influence, Destination Moon is included in NASA's official timeline of the history of space travel.

Nineteen years after the movie was released, Robert A. Heinlein was at Kennedy Space Center to witness the launch of Apollo 11. You really have to wonder what he thought of it all.

Ladies And Gentlemen, Your Republican Base
If you're wondering exactly when it was that the lunatics took control of the 149-year-old asylum called the Republican party, here's your answer.

This video shows Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware besieged by a roomful of unhinged birthers. Castle was polite and did his best to dispense with the question, but he has to be wondering if wild-eyed kooks are all that's left of his party.

Last one to leave, please shut off the lights.

Saturday, July 18, 2009
Darth Vader, Rank Incompetent

My five-year-old daughter has turned into something of a Star Wars nut. We've watched the original movie together a number of times (the original 1977 release, sans the idiotic "improvements" George Lucas tacked on in his dotage). She likes "the funny part" (the cantina scene) finds the robots amusing, and adores Chewbacca.

But watching it with her repeatedly has made me realize something that had never occurred to me before.

Darth Vader is a moron.

Nearly every decision Vader makes in the movie is wrong. He captures Princess Leia's ship, yet inexplicably allows her to transfer the stolen data tapes (his whole reason for attacking) to the surface in an escape pod. He wastes precious time having his thugs stage a fake Tusken raider attack on a Sandcrawler, and destroy Uncle Owen's farm, when recovery of the missing droids ought to have been a gilt-plated priority.

Vader then allows the Millennium Falcon to escape Tatooine, even though he's already been informed that it's the vehicle carrying Kenobi and the droids.

On the Death Star, he gets into a silly argument with one of Tarkin's officers about religion, choking the guy with his hocus-pocus mind control trick for no particular reason (we'll see Vader's management style in action later in The Empire Strikes Back, as he kills one highly-trained general officer after another, ironically because he believes them to be incompetent).

Vader then allows the Millennium Falcon to escape a second time, this time deliberately, betting that it will lead the Empire to the rebel base before the rebels can find a weakness in the Death Star's defenses. Again, he guesses wrong.

He kills Ben Kenobi, but immediately loses the body.

When the Death Star is attacked by X-wing fighters, he leads a group of fighter pilots against them in ship-to-ship combat. The obvious solution to the problem -- turn the tractor beam back on -- never occurs to him. Vader's Tie Fighter defense fails. As a result, the Death Star is destroyed, billions of Galactic credits go up in smoke, thousands of Imperial soldiers are killed, and the only guy who comes out of it with all his skin is Darth Vader. Figures, doesn't it?

Had the guy been even remotely competent, he would simply have blown Leia's ship to pieces before it reached Tatooine's orbit. She would have found it difficult to transfer the stolen data tapes to anyone while floating in vacuum amidst the twisted wreckage of her blasted ship.

Friday, July 17, 2009
An Unsuitable Job For A Woman
This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon, and that made me curious how the anniversary is being celebrated on the right wing. So let us go then, you and I, and find out what they are up to.

First up is our old friend Charles Krauthammer:

America's manned space program is in shambles. Fourteen months from today, for the first time since 1962, the U.S. will be incapable not just of sending a man to the moon but of sending anyone into Earth orbit. We'll be totally grounded. We'll have to beg a ride from the Russians or perhaps even the Chinese.

It won’t shock you to learn that Mr. Krauthammer is – as usual -- wrong. In fact, the United States was totally grounded from 1975 to 1981. We’d used up the last of our Saturn launch vehicles and couldn’t build more. The space shuttle was in development but engineering problems pushed its projected first launch back farther and farther. And we couldn’t hitch a ride into orbit with the Russians or Chinese, either – we weren’t welcome on board.

Embarrassingly, this lack of a manned launch vehicle resulted in the loss of the Skylab space station. NASA had planned to send the space shuttle up to boost Skylab into a higher orbit. But without a viable launch vehicle we could only watch its orbit decay and hope to God it didn’t land on anybody.

But of course facts aren’t important to Krauthammer’s analysis. The point he is making is the same one he’s always making -- that America is in decline, we are slouching toward Gomorrah, we are seeing the moment of our national greatness flicker.

It’s flickering, too, for Tom Piatak, who misses the good old days, when astronauts were all-American, all male and all white:

The contrast between the stoicism and resolve of the Apollo astronauts, and the tawdry emotionalism so prevalent today, could not be more stark: those men were interested in solving problems, not in getting in touch with their feelings. Since then, we have seen a lowering of standards across the board, from grade inflation and the dumbing down of tests and curricula in schools to a widespread acceptance of low standards, loose morals, coarse manners, slovenly dress, and trashy entertainment.

They were selected to go into space for the simple reason that they were the best men for the job, a criterion that today is often no longer enough, as Frank Ricci discovered. Today’s NASA seems as interested in trumpeting its commitment to multiculturalism and diversity as in the exploration of space, a commitment that would have struck the men who actually planned and achieved multiple landings on the moon as simply irrelevant to what they were doing.

Several things jump out here. First, the moth-eaten “Okie From Muskogee” schtick, harping on kids today, their slovenly dress, their shiftlessness, their lack of grit and patriotism, their loose morals, their rock-and-roll music. It is astonishingly stale, as if it was copied straight out of the Reader’s Digest circa 1970. Even the staunchest culture warriors moved on from this sort of thing decades ago. Second is the inversion of the conservative line from the Apollo era : most conservatives then were hostile to the idea of space exploration. Why, they repeatedly asked, are we wasting all this money in outer space? Why are the taxpayers being asked to fund a silly mission to collect moon rocks? Or as John Derbyshire put it just today:

To spend 24 billion current dollars (I think it was) on a project of no practical value, is not the action of a mature commercial republic with a firm grip on its senses. It's more like the pyramid-building exploits of oriental despots.

Third, the assumption that promoting diversity in the astronaut corps leads to inferior astronauts. This makes sense only if you believe that white males are inherently superior to all others – something that all but the most right-wing commentators will quail at expressing openly. Certainly Armstrong and Aldrin were the best test pilots and fighter pilots of their day; but since women and minorities weren’t considered for such jobs, the pool of astronauts was – obviously – limited.

But today we live in a world where Col. Eileen Collins (pictured above) had the opportunity to compete for a job in the astronaut corps. She has commanded a number of space shuttle flights, including the first to launch after the Columbia disaster. I suspect she has enough "stoicism and resolve" to get the job done.

Sunday, July 12, 2009
Meet The New Whigs, Same As The Old Whigs
I agree with much of what Frank Rich writes in his Sunday New York Times column, but I feel that -- like many of the mainstream pundits -- he actually overestimates Sarah Palin.

Not her ability to rev up the right wing -- anyone who's read the comments on Peggy Noonan's latest column knows that the Palinistas are fanatics. But I don't think there are enough fanatics in America to get Palin to the GOP nomination, let alone the White House:

Were Palin actually to secure the 2012 nomination, the result would be a fiasco for the G.O.P. akin to Goldwater 1964, as the most relentless conservative Palin critic, David Frum, has predicted. Or would it? No one thought Richard Nixon — a far less personable commodity than Palin — would come back either after his sour-grapes “last press conference” of 1962. But Democratic divisions and failures gave him his opportunity in 1968. With unemployment approaching 10 percent and a seemingly bottomless war in Afghanistan, you never know, as Palin likes to say, what doors might open.

It’s more likely that she will never get anywhere near the White House, and not just because of her own limitations. The Palinist “real America” is demographically doomed to keep shrinking. But the emotion it represents is disproportionately powerful for its numbers. It’s an anger that Palin enjoyed stoking during her “palling around with terrorists” crusade against Obama on the campaign trail. It’s an anger that’s curdled into self-martyrdom since Inauguration Day.

But would a Palin candidacy resemble Goldwater's 1964 debacle? Maybe -- if the Republicans managed to unite around her. I am not convinced that they would do so. Having Sarah Palin at the top of the ticket would cause unbearable torsion within the party, and would certainly result in the nuttiest political convention the world has ever seen, something like the 700 Club guest-hosted by Glenn Beck. It could well crack the party in two, forcing the minority of moderate and mainstream GOPers out of the party to form their own center-right coalition.

This might sound preposterous, but consider the damage done to the Republican "brand" over the last few years. That brand is not indestructible, and one has to wonder how long the sane people will stay if the truly crazy people gain total control and decide to take the party out in one last blaze of glorious martyrdom.

A Palin candidacy, therefore, might result in a replay of George Wallace's 1968 run. It would be a regional candidacy fueled by everything Wallace exploited - paranoia, class resentment, fear of the future, and a cult of personality built around a single defiant demagogue.

And the Republican dissidents -- let's call them the New Whigs -- would go to their own corner and wait for their chance to pick up the pieces.

There would be a lot of pieces to pick up.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009
The Original Ipod

Recently the BBC had a very clever idea: give a 13-year-old kid the original Sony Walkman, let him test it out for a week, and get his impressions. It's fascinating to hear someone review the technology who's never used a cassette player, let alone a Walkman:

In some classes in school they let me listen to music and one teacher recognised it and got nostalgic.

It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape. That was not the only naive mistake that I made; I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was in fact used to switch between two different types of cassette.

....Another notable feature that the iPod has and the Walkman doesn't is "shuffle", where the player selects random tracks to play. Its a function that, on the face of it, the Walkman lacks. But I managed to create an impromptu shuffle feature simply by holding down "rewind" and releasing it randomly - effective, if a little laboured.

An old codger like me stays with the kid as long as he can, then bellows in frustration, "Hey, hey! This isn't Babbage's difference engine we're talking about! It's not THAT primitive!" But of course, it is. We've just forgotten.

It would be difficult to convey to a young person today the very odd -- even revolutionary -- feeling you had the first time you used a Walkman. You'd be walking down the street, the music blasting in your ears the way it would if your stereo at home was cranked up to 11, but no one else heard it. You were in a different space, effectively checked out of the world. William Gibson had that feeling too when, as a poverty-stricken young man in 1979, he scraped together $200 and bought an early Walkman. It was the experience of being transported by the machine that inspired him to coin the word "cyberspace" -- a place simultaneously vivid and unreal.

Outing Iran? Are You Sure?
Andrew Sullivan links to a video from an Iranian expat music duo called Abjeez. Amusingly, Sullivan titles his post "Outing Iran: Abjeez".

Now Sully's been (understandably) pretty gung-ho in his support of the Iranian protesters and (understandably) pretty angry at their treatment at the hands of the mullahs; it makes sense that he'd post a music video, sent in by one of his readers, that gives voice to that protest.

Note that the video itself is an amusing pastiche of cable news channel tropes and it features an anchor in the studio and a correspondent from a remote site, both singing mockingly of "democracy", while we see footage of soldiers pushing civilians around, firing weapons, and behaving in a threatening manner.

But if you watch the whole thing through, something becomes obvious: the scenes of violence are happening in Iraq, not Iran. And the soldiers who are oppressing innocent people aren't Iranians, they're Americans.

I'm not sure if Sully understood that the video was bashing American leaders, not Iranian ones. Based on the title of his post, I'm guessing not.

Sunday, July 05, 2009
I Have A Dream Too -- But You'll Think It's Stupid
On Friday, a lot of people were asking: is Sarah Palin trying to dodge a scandal? Is she prepping for a run for President? Is she contemplating a lucrative career on the lecture circuit? Is that why she's resigning?

Naw. All these theorists were wrong. They were trying to fit the square peg of Palin's nutty decision into the round hole of logic. Yesterday she issued a statement that was supposedly going to "clarify" the remarks she made in her goofball press conference. The only thing she clarified is that she's crazy as a coconut:

How sad that Washington and the media will never understand; it's about country. And though it's honorable for countless others to leave their positions for a higher calling and without finishing a term, of course we know by now, for some reason a different standard applies for the decisions I make.

Let's set aside the self-pity for a moment and consider this.

This idea of some greater mission came up in Friday's statement as well. To what "higher calling" does she refer? How can her decision be "about country" today when Friday it was about, alternately, Alaska and her family?

And who are the "countless others" who have answered the "higher calling" before they managed to serve a full term of office? I suppose she's referring to Obama here, though Obama didn't resign; and his opponents weren't shy about pointing to his status as a freshman senator during the campaign. Moreover, when he announced his run he was widely criticized as arrogant, a talented young man who was perhaps in too much of a hurry. Everyone knew, of course, that it was Hillary's turn, and he was never going to beat that juggernaut. Had Obama lost in the primaries, or the general, there is little doubt that he would have completed his first Senate term and run for a second in 2010.

Even if you grant that Obama's decision was analogous to Palin's -- and I don't -- who are the other "countless" politicians who have done the same?

I've never thought I needed a title before one's name to forge progress in America. I am now looking ahead and how we can advance this country together with our values of less government intervention, greater energy independence, stronger national security, and much-needed fiscal restraint. I hope you will join me. Now is the time to rebuild and help our nation achieve greatness!
What to say? It's true, I suppose -- you don't have to hold a statewide office to advance your political agenda. But it helps.

Yes, you can influence the political debate from the outside. But it's easier from the inside, which happens to be where Palin is. Her strategic thinking is strangely reminiscent of The Great Gonzo's in The Muppet Movie:

Saturday, July 04, 2009
Happy 232nd, America
I'm not getting to this until the end of the day, but I hope you have a lovely Independence Day.

One great way to celebrate our nation's birthday is to read up on its history. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently discussed James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom on his blog recently, and I went out and got a copy. I would recommend it as a great single-volume history of the Civil War. It gets deep into the underlying assumptions and attitudes of people in those days, which makes it a bit more useful than the Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton histories which (good as they are ) tend to get absorbed in the minutiae of military tactics in specific battles.

Friday, July 03, 2009
The Optics Are Not Ideal Here
The only thing weirder than Sarah Palin's announcement today that she was resigning the governorship of Alaska is the timing. No politician -- except maybe Mark Sanford -- would schedule such an announcement on the 4th of July weekend. It makes no sense at all, especially if -- as many maintain -- Palin is gearing up for a White House run in 2012.

The excuses she makes, and those bandied about by her supporters, ring false. It is possible, of course, that the grueling task of running the state of Alaska have so cut into her family time that she must step aside.

But Alaska is a small state. Its legislature convenes for only a couple of weeks a year. If she can't withstand the insane pressure-cooker of Juneau politics, how could she argue that she's qualified to be President of the United States?

Similarly, a former one-term governor, or current second-term governor, would have a certain amount of credibility on the campaign trail in 2012. But a former governor who resigned before she finished even one term? Huh?

She complained in her press conference, as she always does, that the media was picking on her, that it was picking on her family. Again, it's hard to see how a persecution complex is going to help get her elected to the White House. Does she think she would get less media scrutiny as President than what she's getting right now?

Palin's move is very reminiscent of Ross Perot's goofy unraveling in the 1992 Presidential campaign. Perot -- who was actually leading in the polls that summer -- suddenly dropped out. Stung by accusations that he was "a quitter", Perot jumped back in that fall, claiming that he'd left the race because the Republicans were plotting to sabotage his daughter's wedding. The problem with this explanation was simple: even if you decided that he wasn't suffering from paranoid delusions, you still had to wonder if you should vote for a guy who could be so easily blackmailed.

Palin is in an analogous situation. The public might pity her enough to accept her explanation for resigning. But no amount of pity will get her into the White House.

Backward Ran Sentences Until Reeled The Mind
CNN.com often gets razzed for its terrible headline-writing. It doesn't usually bother me, but this morning there were some real doozies. For instance, this one gets the award for useless personal health factoid:


What?! People who competitively gorge themselves have a higher risk of obesity? I'd better click through and read that one right away.

On the utterly content-free front:


Slow news day, you think?

Or this one -- pretty much tailor-made for cable news:


Hey, I have a question: where the hell were all these teachers when I was in school?

Then we have a headline that combines the lurid rubbernecking appeal of flesh-eating viruses with the mawkishness of sick but saintly children:


After a headline like that, there's no point in reading the story. Just tell me where to send the check.

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