Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Beowulf... Why?

Robert Zemeckis, a very talented filmmaker, is back this season exploring the highly unpromising vein he started mining with The Polar Express. Beowulf is a loose retelling of the Old English epic poem. Like Final Fantasy, these Zemeckis films are photoreal depictions of human characters. The innovation that Zemeckis has clamped onto is procedural; rather than animating from scratch, he records actors’ performances, this go-around with a new motion capture technique that photographs them from multiple angles. I saw the rig he uses for this at the SIGGRAPH convention this summer; it looks like a geodesic dome fitted with dozens of lights and cameras.

Despite my misgivings about motion capture, I came to the film wanting it to succeed. I saw it on the first weekend, and in IMAX 3D. Unfortunately, I have to report that the film was an almost complete failure. Only two scenes really worked: Angelina Jolie’s seduction of the hero, and the final action set piece. For the most part it was a flat, frigid bore.

The question I was left with was… why? If this film had been made in live action with CGI assistance, it still would not have been a good film, but it would have been a better film. I know what Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich can give a story. What motion capture got out of them was barely 10% of what they can do even when they’re having a bad day.

What went wrong? First, the motion capture doesn’t look that bad. When it’s bad, motion capture looks… dirty. There’s more detail there than needs to be there. Zemeckis has obviously had animators edit the motion extensively. The trouble is not the usual one of too much extraneous detail, but not enough. There’s no intimacy to the performances.

When humans look photo-real we expect photo-real expression. The human face is a highly complex interweaving of dozens of muscles. Moreover, we are extraordinarily adept at reading it; our species has evolved into master interpreters of our own faces. Small subtleties carry enormous meaning. The fault might not be with the motion capture alone, but the character rigs too. 3D technology has advanced enormously, but it still cannot quite simulate all the details of facial movement, at least not when the benchmark is human complexity.

Perhaps it is also the circumstances in which the motion was captured. An actor is far likelier to create a compelling performance on a set, with the actors he’s playing against right there in front of him. A geodesic dome is not quite the same spark to the imagination.

Finally, there is the issue of what 3D folk call the “Uncanny Valley”. This term was coined by MIT researchers on robotics. They were trying to come up with a robot design that would provoke emotional attachment. They found that the more like humans the robots got, the more warmly people responded to them. This perhaps was not surprising. What was more surprising was that there came a point when this effect started diminishing and reversing. People started getting a little freaked out by the human likeness. When the design started becoming completely convincing – like say, Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner – identification and attachment returned. This effect was dubbed the uncanny valley. People in 3D argue about whether it really exists. As one who has fallen in myself (in a mixed media project,) I can testify that it does exist. Does Beowulf fall into the uncanny valley? Well, it’s clawing up the far side, but it’s there.

I go back to the most pertinent question: why? Why bother recreating reality in mathematically defined polygons, when real reality is right here with us? I know the answer in my bones because I’ve made films both in 3D and live action. A live action shoot is terribly frustrating for control freaks like me… and presumably, Zemeckis. A plane flying overhead ruins your best take. The damn cameraman muffles the follow on another good take. The actor scratches his nose for no apparent reason, ruining yet another one. And if you say you’re satisfied with the shot, at 1AM in the morning, when you’ve been up and working your ass off since 6AM, then you will have to live with that for the rest of your life. You rarely get retake days. The 3D world, on the other hand, is infinitely malleable. You can tweak the camera angle or the hue of the hero’s plaid jacket till the cows come home. Yes, there are time constraints because budgets are never infinite but things can be… adjusted. Always adjusted.

The truth, however, is that this kind of stuff doesn’t really matter all that much. Filmmakers can obsess about things intricate like camera movements or subtle pictorial elements, but that’s just the icing on the cake. What matters is story and performances. To sacrifice performance for the flexibility to execute the filmmaking flourishes is terribly, terribly wrong-headed. And I just can’t imagine what other upside there is in a technique such as this.

I believe 3D animation does not need to be confined to family audiences. It can appeal to older, narrower audiences. But I also think animation needs to be allowed to be animation. Let it do what it does best: provide an imaginative restyling of life movement and life imagery.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Obama and Experience

It took me a while to get off the fence, but Obama's Jefferson-Jackson dinner speech finally closed the deal for me. I'm on board with Barack. Here is the speech in its entirety:

I'm sure I'll make a case for Obama irregularly, infrequently and erratically in the weeks ahead. Where I want to start is by addressing what is perceived to be his biggest weakness: that he is inexperienced.

If Barack Obama becomes President in January 2009 he will have spent 12 years in elective office. I have to suspect that a longer experience than that might actually be detrimental.

Perhaps it's that Obama spent 8 years as a State Senator, and the Illinois State Senate is seen as a sort of minor league. Was he not seeing major league fastballs over there? Illinois is a pretty big state... if it were a country, its GDP would be bigger than Sweden's.

Perhaps the craft of drafting legislation is easier in the Illinois Senate than in the U.S. Senate? I can't imagine so. Are alliances and compromises easier to come by in Illinois, where perhaps politicians are not risk-averse, not particularly ambitious, and are unswayed by lobbyists? Again, I don't think so. If anything, from what I hear politics in Illinois -- and particularly in Chicago where Obama is from -- is hairier than what it is in most other places.

Perhaps we look to experience not to sharpen political skills (which Obama seems to have aplenty) but to give a candidate familiarity with the issues. There is overlap, but state issues are often different than federal issues. States don't deal with foreign policy, immigration, and a spate of other areas. If this is true and an important consideration, it should cut against the Governors and Mayors in the race more than it cuts against Obama, who after all would arrive to his inauguration with four years as a U.S. Senator as well.

Obama was ridiculed by the Clinton camp for citing living overseas as a child as a foreign policy qualification. Others may scoff, but as one who grew up overseas, I will not. A child under ten sucks up culture like a sponge. As wonderful as it is for Chris Dodd, for instance, to have been a Peace Corp volunteer in the Dominican Republic in his youth, the experience of being a child in a different culture is far more potent than that. One who experiences that will always have an eye for cultural difference and an ear for human commonality. He will have a firm foothold on the rest of the world.

Obama continued his multicultural upbringing in Hawaii, a cultural petri dish if ever there was one. As a young man, he would live in Los Angeles and New York before settling in Chicago, where he became a community organizer. Reading his fine memoir, Dreams of My Father, you realize what a political training ground that must have been: trying to reconcile the disparate agendas of radical black Muslims with conservative Christian churchgoers, and finding common ground between them. You see him learning to lead from behind, giving people the tools to succeed on their own rather than trying to hog the spotlight.

From there Obama goes to Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American to be President of the Harvard Law Review. This is a political as well as intellectual achievement. Tellingly, his victory in the voting came from his ability to listen to the concerns of the conservative faction.

Out of Harvard, he could have gone to New York and instantly be earning a 6-figure income at any white shoe firm he chose. He could have gone to Washington and clerked for a Supreme Court judge, as is traditional for a President of the Law Review. Instead he went right back to community organizing. Eventually, he also taught constitutional law.

The first African-American President would come to office far better equipped for his duties than the President who freed blacks from slavery. After all, Abraham Lincoln only served for two years in the House of Representatives. Luckily, that was enough experience to bring change.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Hillary's YouTube Moment

I just saw this on Andrew Sullivan's site. Wow. This is quite a bit more embarassing than Kerry's "I voted against it before I voted for it."

Friday, November 16, 2007

Krugman: Fighting the Last War

Paul Krugman bops Obama on the head today in a column titled Played for a Sucker:
Lately, Barack Obama has been saying that major action is needed to avert what he keeps calling a “crisis” in Social Security — most recently in an interview with The National Journal. Progressives who fought hard and successfully against the Bush administration’s attempt to panic America into privatizing the New Deal’s crown jewel are outraged, and rightly so.

The fear, expressed by others in the Lefty blogosphere, is that accepting the Right's framing of a Social Security crisis puts the program in mortal peril.

I know, Social Security -- even with growth projections well below the historical norm -- is going to be solvent for another couple of decades. I get it. But can we get real? Privatization failed. It didn't even get out of committee. It didn't come close to getting out of committee, and that was before the 2006 election. Liberals are so traumatized, so used to being abused, that they would rather keep clutching the orthodoxies they're used to rather than grabbing the advantage. And that is precisely what Obama is doing!

He has proposed raising the cap on Social Security income, making our most regressive tax a little more progressive. Is Hillary Clinton really being a better liberal because she punts on the issue and leaves it for a blue ribbon bipartisan committee to work out later? Is there a more progressive solution this committee might come up with? Raising the retirement age? Lowering benefits? Are those more progressive solutions?

We've got to stop acting like scared children about this. We won. Privatization is dead. Now... can we talk to people about our solutions to their problems?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Revver Features BGRG

Blue Guy vs Red Guy is featured today as an Editor's Pick on the Revver front page. With a little luck, I'm hoping to be able to afford a beer with the proceeds of this film!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

I know this is total crap but...

cash advance

I appreciate even spurious praise. (That's probably why I did well: I use 10-cent words like 'spurious' occasionally.) On the other hand, Kevin Drum's site only gets a "high school" rating and he's got about 20 IQ points on me.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Blue Guy vs. Red Guy

And since I'm sharing other people's video, I might as well share my own. Here's Blue Guy vs. Red Guy, a little 3D short I spent my free time on this summer. Once the short starts rolling you'll see an expand-to-full-screen button on the bottom; click it to see the film properly.

Enjoy! (And if you enjoy, share with others!)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

I Got You, Mr. President

Here's something a friend of mine, John Schnall, whipped up.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

How to Catch Hillary

There was a moment in the debate last night that might well come to be seen as a defining point in the campaign. It was when Chris Dodd challenged Hillary for wanting to have it both ways on driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. Why? Because it crystallized a whole narrative about Hillary: the calculating, straddling triangulator.

Obama and Edwards have been calling out Hillary on the issues, but they have not extracted a narrative out of the issues. If they are smart, they will let the issues speak about their opponent. Every time Hillary hedges on a question with an eye on November (as she did on Rangel's plan, Social Security, and many other times last night) they will bring up decisiveness and conviction. It's the one chink in the armor of the Clinton franchise: both historically and in their current circumstance. Change vs. Experience is a dead draw, or favors Hillary. Authenticity vs. Calculation is a clear loser for her.

It's been observed that Democrats are not good at creating narratives... we'll see if Obama and Edwards have the guts, brains and finesse to pull this off. If they don't, they won't win the nomination, and they won't deserve to win.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Psycho Killer... Qu'est Que C'est?

I just finished seeing season one of Dexter, the Showtime dramatic series.

Some people don't like Dexter because they watch it as if it were a police procedural and complain about its implausibility. It's really not that -- Dexter is a superhero narrative. The hero had a formative experience in his childhood that resulted in a secret identity. This identity gave him great powers, but it also placed a great burden on him. It set him apart from a world to which he brought a mighty boon. This is the same story as Superman, Spiderman, Daredevil.

Dexter is the Superhero as Serial Killer... a really great twist on an American narrative form.

And by the way, is it just me or does Showtime seem to be overtaking HBO on the heat scale?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Right Brain or Left Brain?

This test purports to discover whether you are right- or left-brain dominant. I'm not sure whether it does, and I'm still less sure about the traits they list under right and left brain. Still, it's a lot of fun... try it.

At first I saw her turn clockwise (from the top.) With quite a bit of effort, I did learn to reverse her direction. Here's some tips I've read from people online on how to reverse her direction: use peripheral vision; look away and then look back; cover her with your hand, previsualize her turning the opposite way, then slowly uncover her; use the eye opposite to your brain side.

From 3D perspective, this test takes advantage of an orthographic view... a view without perspective. Closer objects don't appear larger, and faraway objects don't appear smaller. This allows for the confusion in silhouette.

(Via Kos, where a poll shows that about 70% see her turning clockwise at first, and 30% see her turning counter-clockwise.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Seven-Year Twitch

49 Up is the latest in a series of documentaries, most directed by Michael Apted, which chronicle the lives of a number of Britons at seven-year intervals, starting when they were seven years old.

Those of you who haven't seen the series definitely should -- they are worthy films. However, I am struck at how much darker the movies are getting. 7 Up was meant to be an exploration of class issues. By the time they got to 28 Up, the films had turned into a meditation on the eddies and flows of life and fate; one could celebrate the victories and grieve the failures of the protagonists. But by now, the movie seems like a mass performance of Krapp's Last Tape. Even the happy, well-adjusted subjects seemed tortured by the documentary process. It's become quite apparent: confronting middle-aged people with the dreams of their youth is an exquisite form of sadism.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

S-CHIP on their Shoulder?

It's nice when blogger mean-spiritedness gets a deserved backlash. Here's the rant version of the story.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Baby Bonds Take Steroids

Matthew Yglesias defends Hillary Clinton's baby bonds initiative. Briefly, the idea is to give every child a $5,000 savings bond to help pay for college.

Frankly, the idea has little appeal to me.

I would prefer to let parents invest the money in an IRA-like vehicle, so that they could put it into equities. Assuming a historically modest 6% after-inflation yield, $5,000 would become $13,463 when the baby is ready for college. But I would prefer to not let them cash it in yet: the money would grow to $208,231 when they are ready to retire at 65. Invested in an annuity, that would provide a monthly income of about $1,400, far more than the average Social Security check, which today is only $895. At a cost of $20 billion a year today, we could ease our children from life's greatest financial liability, old age.

Seems like a deal to me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Iraq and the History of Civil Wars

Kevin Drum leans on some research on civil wars to scan our options on Iraq. A good post.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

There's Something About Hillary

Just days after 9/11 they had a benefit concert for firefighters and policemen at Madison Square Garden. Free tickets were distributed to firehouses and precincts. Newly elected Senator Hillary Clinton came out to greet the audience... and was roundly booed. So much so that she seemed shaken. Minutes later, Bill came out and was applauded wildly. She hadn't established a separate political identity at all from him yet. Why was one of them so popular and the other so unpopular? Sure, Bill is charismatic and emotionally warm... and Hillary does come off as a little stiff and cool. But does that explain the visceral dislike she inspired?

I don't think the reactions to Hillary are all due to her personality. The first lady plays an archetypal role in the national dream life: she is the mother figure. This particular mother had professional accomplishments; she went to work on health care. On a subconscious plane, this raised Hillary into a role she didn't choose. In our minds Hillary came to represent the greatest social transformation of our time: the entry of women and mothers into the work force. This revolution widened the productive resources of our society and has allowed many women to realize their full human potential. That is wonderful and it has been much celebrated. But it also created a lot of suppressed anger and resentment.

Freudians would call it projection. A lot of the good feelings, but mainly the bad feelings about absent mothers are overlayed on her. By being emotionally cool, Hillary unfortunately wears the role of the absent and rejecting mother too well. In the distorted faces of those firefighters and policemen -- a little tipsy and booing lustily -- there were lonely latchkey kids.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Apple Watch

You may have read recently that NBC will no longer be selling its video downloads on the iTunes store after a pricing dispute with Apple. Today, the New York Times reports that the network will be offering free downloads on its own website. Advertising you can't fast forward through will be embedded in the shows, which will become unviewable after seven days.

NBC is putting its chips on the winning square (although I doubt consumers will be patient enough to download a different player from every content provider out there.) Paid downloads will maintain a share of the market, but advertising-supported downloads will be dominant. We have already played this out with cable: advertisers are willing to outbid us for our eyeballs... that's a proven. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that Apple is too attached to providing a pristine customer experience to recognize this fact and offer advertising supported content on iTunes. If they don't, they will get left behind.

Also, for some time now Netflix has been offering its subscribers downloadable movies at no extra charge. I have not been able to sample this since currently it is available only on the PC side, but friends who have tried it praise this service. If Apple can't match this offering, they ought to partner with Netflix and host it on AppleTV.

Finally, when I was at Siggraph, the 3D convention, Apple was recruiting 3D animators at the job fair. Just this morning I saw an ad they were running for a games producer. The fact that Apple is producing games themselves, rather than outsourcing it to a strategic partner, indicates to me that Apple is very committed to games. I would expect that both the iPhone and the iPod could become PSP-like game platforms, and the AppleTV could also become a game console.

The reason that AppleTV hasn't been a runaway success is because there simply isn't enough content to justify its price tag. If the AppleTV starts running free TV, movies on subscription, and a great collection of games then it could become a breakout hit that defines the Digital Living Room revolution.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dubious Abbreviation Watch

One of the more annoying traits of the blogosphere is its fondness for questionable abbreviations. Today, Andrew Sullivan titles a post MGM Update.

Well? Is he going to update his take on the classic Hollywood musicals? No, silly. Everyone knows MGM stands for Male Genital Mutiliation.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

A Royalist Reading

I was taken back by George Will's assertion on This Week that Jim Webb's law to make troop at-home time as long as deployments was unconstitutional. A little googling reveals that John McCain is making the same claim:
"Where in the Constitution of the United States does it say that the Congress decides how long people will spend on tours of duty and how long they will spend back in the United States? It's blatantly unconstitutional," McCain said. "The Constitution of the United States said Congress will declare wars and fund wars."

Will and McCain need to re-read Article 1, Section 8. The following power is explicitly granted to Congress:

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces

There is no ambiguity here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Senate Tsunami?

Fourteen months to election day and I'm already handicapping the Senate races? Yes, I know. I'm a pathetic political junkie.

The first thing to realize is that the Republicans are defending far more seats than the Democrats: 22 to 12. We can organize the possible Democratic pickups in these broad caterogies:

Return of the Prodigal Sons: Mark Warner has announced that he will run for the open VA senate. (The other Virginia Warner, John, is retiring.) Mark is a popular former Governor and a superb candidate -- I'd count that seat as a gimme. Also, Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska Senator, is considering running for the seat of the retiring Chuck Hagel. If he runs he would be expected to win.

What Will I do? I'm Red in a State That's All Blue!: Susan Collins, Norm Coleman, John Sununu, and Gordon Smith are defending their seats in states that have a strong Democratic preference. Susan Collins is the likeliest to squeeze by; John Sununu won't be so lucky. He just beat Ex-Gov Jeanne Shaheen by 51%-47% in 2002, a good year for Republicans. The polling now makes it look like a landslide for Shaheen.

Scandal-bait: Ted Stevens of Alaska seems to be sinking deeper into a bribery scandal every day. He's survived allegations of shadiness before, but this seems to be of a different magnitude. If this becomes an open seat it's possible that Red Alaska will tire of their corrupt local Republicans. Larry Craig is going to quit soon, but unfortunately he's from Idaho. Let's call that safe Republican.

On the bubble: Wayne Allard is retiring in Colorado. It's a purple state, and there is no leading Dem contender yet. Let's call that 50/50. Other candidates mentioned as vulnerable are Mitch McConnell from Kentucky, Elizabeth Dole from North Carolina, and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Let's call them leaning Republican.

Safe as Subprime Houses: The other Republicans seem reasonably safe, but so did George Allen around this time in 2005. A perennial like Pete Domenici could easily be surprised.

Are there any seats on the Dem side that are in jeopardy? Mary Landrieu might be vulnerable. Also, Tim Johnson's health might be an issue after his recent stroke. However, if the environment is anything like it was in 2006 or is now, it'll be difficult for the Republicans to flip an incumbent.

The Democrats currently have 51 seats. I would consider it likely that they will gain six seats at this stage, but with perfect storm like there was in 2006, a filibuster proof senate is not out of the question.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Fun With Graphs

Yes, Powerpoint has been the butt of parody before. Rarely, however, has it served the Confused God of Obfuscation as well as it did in General Petraeus's hands yesterday. Matthew Yglesias has the rundown on one particularly dishonest graph and Kevin Drum marvels at another.

UPDATE: Via Andrew Sullivan, here's an astonishing quote from Petraeus's PhD dissertation:
The Vietnam experience left the military leadership feeling that they should advise against involvement in counterinsurgencies unless specific, perhaps unlikely, circumstances obtain -- i.e. domestic public support, the promise of a quick campaign, and freedom to employ whatever force is necessary to achieve rapid victory. In light of such criteria, committing U.S. units to counterinsurgencies appears to be a very problematic proposition, difficult to conclude before domestic support erodes and costly enough to threaten the well-being of all America's military forces (and hence the country's national security), not just those involved in the actual counterinsurgency.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Inhale and Hold

Many of you might already be enjoying the third season of Weeds; since I don't have Showtime, I am just now catching up with the second season on DVD. May I just marvel at this show for a minute? Mary-Louise Parker is a miracle of nature and the rest of the cast is fine too... especially Kevin Nealon, who squeezes out the comic relief generously. I love how they've started to get a different cover for the theme song every episode. And most importantly, the writing is some of the best on television.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Learned Fecklessness

In 1965, Martin Seligman conducted an experiment extending Pavlov's work on classical conditioning. First, he would expose a dog in a hammock to a harmless -- but painful -- electric shock while he played a tone. This happened often enough that the dog associated the tone with the shock.

Later, Seligman took the dog out of the hammock and put him in a small box. The dog was no longer constrained. Now, he played a tone as he electrified the floor. A normal dog in this situation would simply jump over a low fence to escape the shock -- escape was simple. But not for our dog. He had learned that the tone and the shock were inextricably linked, that any attempts at escape were futile. He had learned to be helpless.

This is what has happened to Democrats.

It all began when Nancy Pelosi took cutting off funds for the war off the table before she even took office. "As long as our troops are in harm’s way, Democrats will be there to support them," she said. Even if the Dems didn't want to end the war this way, agreeing to the Republican frame (cutting funds = not supporting troops) was asinine. It would be far better to keep the threat of a funds cut-off in your pocket.

Now, the New York Times reports that Dems are considering coming to a 'bi-partisan' compromise:
Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said, “If we have to make the spring part a goal, rather than something that is binding, and if that is able to produce some additional votes to get us over the filibuster, my own inclination would be to consider that.”

How is a non-binding resolution going to end this President's war? How will meekly suggesting a withdrawal in the spring, which we know is going to happen anyway, going to end this President's war? The only thing such a vote will do is give the Republicans political cover. In 2008 they will be able to run ads saying "See, folks! I voted to end this war. You don't have to be angry at me!"

Conservative Andrew Sullivan is right. There is a whole generation of traumatized Democrats. Here he is about Clinton vis-à-vis Obama:

Clinton is from the traumatized generation; Obama isn't. Clinton has internalized to her bones the 1990s sense that conservatism is ascendant, that what she really believes is unpopular, that the Republicans have structural, latent power of having a majority of Americans on their side. Hence the fact that she reeks of fear, of calculation, of focus groups, of triangulation. She might once have had ideals keenly felt; she might once have actually relished fighting for them and arguing in their defense. But she has not been like that for a very long time. She has political post-traumatic stress disorder.

We need to replace a whole generation of Democratic leaders. The ones we have now will never learn that all they need to do to avoid the electrical shock is to just jump over the damn fence.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NYC is Farm Country!

Via Matt Yglesias, we get this map of Manhattan. The red dots indicate recipients of federal farm subsidies, with the big dots showing the ones receiving more than $250,000 a year.

I had no idea agriculture was such an integral part of my city's economy. I'm imagining a version of "Green Acres" where the Gabor sister prevailed over her husband.

Be glad that your tax dollars are helping to save the family farmer!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

On Craig's Cruisin'

After the discovery of Senator Craig's arrest for lewd conduct in Minneapolis, the meme de jour on the lefty blogosphere has been that although Craig is a hypocrite, he did nothing wrong. Matthew Yglesias thinks it, David Kurtz thinks it, Hilzoy sort of thinks it.

Let's look at the arrest report:
I could see Craig look through the crack in the door from his position. Craig would look down at his hand, 'fidget' with his fingers, and then look through the crack into my stall again. Craig would repeat this cycle for about two minutes. I was able to see Craig's blue eyes as he looked into my stall.

Many years ago, when I was younger and perhaps less equipped to deal with the situation, a man very purposefully peeked through the crack in the door of my toilet stall, presumably for the purpose of soliciting sex. I banged on the door and he got the message and left. But it was definitely a violative act and I was upset by it.

Look, I'm pretty liberal on gay issues. I think gays should be able to marry the people they love and have all the rights that heterosexuals enjoy. But what Craig did -- in a public place -- was illegal... and wrong. To call it 'disorderly conduct' is mild.

UPDATE: Here's a much better story about an uncomfortable experience in a men's room.

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Because Microsoft-bashing is always fun.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Obama Republicans?

I've noted before that Barack Obama has the remarkable ability to make conservatives like Andrew Sullivan and David Brooks swoon. This Iowa poll indicates that this effect is not limited to pundits; Obama is polling ahead of Thompson and McCain as the preferred general election candidate of Iowa Republicans.

The Score on Iraq

Kevin Drum gathers together some helpful metrics on Iraq, but Matthew Yglesias delves into the Army's counterinsurgency field manual to remind us what the really important metric is.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

McCain in Trouble?

Kos has what he aptly calls "a shocker of a poll" showing that McCain is in trouble... in the race for Arizona Senate.

The New New Iraq

The Bush Administration has criticized the Maliki government sharply, and now Maliki has sniped back calling them "discourteous" and saying Iraq could "find friends elsewhere."

I had wondered how the administration would sell a continuation of their Iraq policy in September, when a report to Congress is due. Back in the spring the NEW AND IMPROVED! factor had been the surge. Yes, we've been in Iraq for four years now, but never with shiny new General Petraeus! Never with a true counter-insurgency strategy! Never with this troop surge!

Well, the surge came and -- because of troop availability -- it will have to wane in the spring. The incremental increase in troops managed to cut down on violence in Baghdad, but country-wide both US and Iraqi deaths are up compared to corresponding months last year. With key Sunnis leaving the cabinet, the political situation has actually gone backwards. In a development unrelated to the surge, Sunnis in Al-Anbar have teamed with the U.S. to fight Al-Qaeda, but that's a double-edge sword... we may just be arming future combatants against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.

So how can the administration sell a continuation? What's the new excuse to delay a reckoning? Where's the new NEW AND IMPROVED! factor?

Expect a new Prime Minister soon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Elizabeth Murray, 1940-2007

While I was on vacation one of my favorite artists passed. Elizabeth Murray was 66; she died of lung cancer. Her work is her testament, so I'll let it speak for itself. (Click any image to enlarge.)Bowtie, 2000.

Above: Open Drawer, 1998.
Below: Worm's Eye, 2002

Saturday, August 11, 2007

On Vay-cay!

The blogging has been light this week, and probably will be over the coming few days. I'm in SoCal visiting friends and doing the SIGGRAPH convention. Will tell all when I get back!

I Was Once in a Cramer Crater

By now nearly everyone has seen this clip of Jim Cramer flipping out over the need for Bernanke to lower interest rates.

Is Jim Cramer really this insane or is it an act for television? Actually, he really is like this. Many years ago I pursued a career as a playwright and made ends meet by working at the document center of Goldman Sachs. Jim Cramer was there, working in the fixed income department. One day he came down with two hours of work which he needed done in 40 minutes in order to meet a Fedex deadline. For some reason he was under the impression that if he yelled at me, at much the same volume he reaches in this video, I would somehow attain the ability to type three times faster. Predictably, we didn't meet the deadline. Afterwards he seemed a little embarassed but didn't say he was sorry. After he left, his analyst underlings did apologize for him, though -- profusely.

There were a lot of type A personalities at Goldman, but Jim Cramer was really in a category of his own.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Last Illusionist Locket Post?

Most of the traffic I get on this blog is because of a single post: my March piece on how to build the locket from the Illusionist. Of course, I didn't really show how to build it... I just showed how it theoretically could be built in 3D animation. Many enterprising souls came up with more workable plans than I did, such as The Mechanical Philosopher, and now I notice that some people have actually built the thing. Here's Jane from The Cranitorium and Evadedia's blog. Both have videos of their completed lockets, and Evadedia -- who spent 3 days building hers -- is now selling it on Ebay.

Congratulations, people! It's been fascinating being part of weird worldwide subculture that has been hypnotized by a prop they saw in a movie.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

More Nonsense from AP

A couple of days ago I wrote about the AP's horrendous coverage of an Obama speech. Well, they've done it again. Kevin Drum writes how the first version of an AP story read as follows:
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday he would not use nuclear weapons "in any circumstance."

This is how the conversation went:

AP: Sir, with regard to terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan ...

OBAMA: Yeah.

AP: Is there any circumstances where you'd be prepared or willing to use nuclear weapons to defeat terrorism and Osama bin Laden?

OBAMA: No, I'm not, uh, there has been no discussion of using nuclear weapons and that's not a hypothetical that I'm going to discuss.

AP: Not even tactical?

OBAMA: No. I think it would be a profound mistake for us to use nuclear weapons in any circumstance. Uh, if involving you know, civilians... Let me scratch all that. There's been no discussion of nuclear weapons. That's not on the table so...

If a politician corrects a statement right after he's said it, it shouldn't even be reported, much less shorn of context and described as his view. This is crazy and unprofessional.

The Union Says It's Okay

Matt Yglesias is live-blogging from YearlyKos and comes up with a post that seems like conservative parody of what a liberal post would look like.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Chronicle of a Distortion

Sometimes bad news coverage can set the tone for a story. Here's what the Associated Press wrote about Barack Obama's speech:
The Illinois senator warned Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf that he must do more to shut down terrorist operations in his country and evict foreign fighters under an Obama presidency, or Pakistan will risk a U.S. troop invasion and losing hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid.

Wow! Obama threatened to invade Pakistan! Drudge was off, Maguire was off, all the boys started ooh-ing at Barack's invasion threat. Except, of course, he said nothing of the sort:

As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.

And Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increase America’s commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists’ program of hate is met with one of hope. And we must not turn a blind eye to elections that are neither free nor fair – our goal is not simply an ally in Pakistan, it is a democratic ally.

It's a nuanced view. It offers Pakistanis carrots and sticks in exchange for their cooperation, it favors Pakistani democrats, and it allows for the possibility of military operations on Pakistani soil.

Ah, but it was too late. J-Pod over at the Corner was off:

Obama is full of it. This country is never — never — going to stage a major military action against Pakistan. Pakistan is a nation of 170 million people that has nuclear weapons and whose admittedly problematic and troublesome regime has, to some extent, cooperated with the United States in the war against Al Qaeda both in ways we know and ways we have no idea about. The concern that this strategically vital county might become an Islamic fundamentalist state is, should be, and will be paramount in every and all discussions about how to conduct the fight against Al Qaeda.

What's more, every serious person knows the United States won't invade Pakistan, even with Special Forces — since the reason we cancelled the proposed action against Al Qaeda in 2005 is that it was going to take many hundreds of American troops to do it. This isn't 15 people dropping like ninjas in the darkness. It's an invasion, with helicopters and supply lines and routes of ingress and escape. It would have had unforseen and unforeseeable consequences, but it would have been reasonable to assume the Pakistanis would have turned violently against the United States and hurtled toward Islamic fundamentalist control.

If the evil Bushitler Cheney Rumsfeld Monster wouldn't do it, nobody will do it.

Of course, both Clinton and Bush considered military operations in Pakistan, from a cruise missile attack to a special forces snatch-and-grab. Now maybe they made the right decision to not go through with those plans, but there's no reason why a President Obama should rule out such an option, especially when the threat itself might be persuasive.

If Giuliani had said the same thing, J-Pod would be chirping happily, but when a Democrat says it, the reaction is first to distort what he says, and then to have a tantrum and protest that it's impossible to out-hawk our Dear Leader so please don't even try.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Flight of the Mule

I rented Maria Full of Grace recently. When I really like a film in the theatres, often I'll rent it when it comes out on DVD. It's interesting to see whether the movie holds up to a second viewing.

Maria Full of Grace does. It's the story of a feisty Colombian village girl who is recruited to become a drug mule. We see the circumstances that lead to her decision, how she has to swallow dozens of small packages of cocaine and keep them in her stomach for the length of a plane ride, and how she skirts past customs in New York. The story plays like a taut thriller. Sure, the plot skids a bit in the third act, but it never comes off the road, and the performances are excellent, especially Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria.

For me, the story has resonance. It feels like a metaphor for the experience of a whole class of illegal Latino immigrants in the U.S.

Anyhow, it's a good flick. Catch it if you haven't already.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Work Update

Here's a link to a project I just completed called Day Zero. It's an animated version of the TV show 24... a prequel showing the day before Season One. I joke that Jack Bauer tortures Spongebob in it, but of course, this ain't a parody... it's the real thing.

The series is done in a limited animation, graphic novel style. Xeth Feinberg did a great job of directing; I contributed with editing and compositing.


Young Hillary

The New York Times has an article on some letters Hillary Clinton wrote to a high school friend back when she was in college. The letters show her to be a very bright, pretentious, self-absorbed undergraduate... not far from what you might expect.

As the piece says, "the letters contain no possibly damaging revelations of the proverbial “youthful indiscretions,” and mention nothing glaringly outlandish or irresponsible." True. But the fourth-last paragraph in the article does contain this:
Ms. Rodham skates earnestly on the surface of life, raising more questions than answers. “Last week I decided that even if life is absurd why couldn’t I spend it absurdly happy?” she wrote in November of her junior year. She then challenges herself to “define ‘happiness’ Hillary Rodham, acknowledged agnostic intellectual liberal, emotional conservative.

Of course it shouldn't matter, but she's going to have to explain the agnostic part at some point. She'll have to trace a personal journey from belief in God, to lapsed belief, to a return to faith. Why? Only 45% of Americans are willing to vote for an atheist for President. More people would be willing to vote for a homosexual.

By the way, if you've read me regularly you've probably picked up a certain anti-Hillary vibe. I have to say, I've been watching the debates and she has been very impressive... she's stood out every time I've seen her.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Contempt for the Contemptible

The Washington Post reports that the administration has made a bold new claim of executive authority. Under the conservative legal doctrine of the unitary executive, the administration is announcing that the Justice Department will not pursue cases of contempt of congress. This raises two possible responses by the Democrats: challenge the decision in court, and let the cases wind their way through the judiciary; or go back to the long-dormant practice of enforcing inherent contempt. Congress has the right to use the Capitol Police to jail people who refuse to testify, and it has used this power in the past -- most recently in the 1930s.

Apparently Conyers has already raised the possibility in a letter to the administration.

This issue has been floating around the liberal blogs for about a month now, but it hasn't broken through to the mainstream media yet. My guess is that with today's news it will soon.

UPDATE: And on cue, the Washington Post publishes a piece about inherent contempt today. Ironically, when the day is done, the administration's attempts to broaden executive power will have the opposite effect; as with NIxon, a new layer of statute and precedent will be established to tilt the balance away from the President and towards Congress.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Fun With Regression Lines

How are Catholics and supply-siders alike? Kevin Drum has the hilarious answer.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

iPhone Murdered

Wrong, wrong, wrong. On so many levels.

And of course, it will turn a profit, probably.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Great Expectorations

Drudge reports that Katie Couric literally slapped around an editor when he slipped the word "sputum" into her text.

Long ago I worked at NBC News. Usually I was behind the scenes -- way behind the scenes -- but I remember a rare instance when I had to go to the studio where they shoot the Nightly News. Tom Brokaw was there in a corner, reading his text out loud to himself before the broadcast, rehearsing different emphases and intonations. I would suggest that if Ms. Couric takes her job seriously, which after all is nothing more than reading a script, she should at least read the thing beforehand.

Lead, Crime and Ancient Rome

Via Kevin Drum, here is a fascinating link from the Washington Post. Economist Rick Nevin has been able to draw a high degree of corelation between crime statistics and the lead levels of years before when the criminals were toddlers. Most impressively, the corelation seems to hold true in nine different countries with varying regulatory histories. This corelation is stronger and more consistent than other celebrated theories, such as the Freakonomics idea that the legalization of abortion was responsible for falling crime... or the Rudy idea that all credit belongs to Rudy.

Kevin uses the opportunity to agitate for lead abatement, pointing to research showing that a reduction in lead levels would improve IQs measurably.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading a book about Roman times -- Augustus by Anthony Everitt -- that repeatedly cites uses of lead that would shock us today: the metal was used in make up, water pipes, wine-making, weaponry, and even cooking pots. The ubiquity, moldability, and low melting point of lead made it very popular in ancient times. The sort of poisoning that must have come from such use would surely have dwarfed the contamination we saw in the 20th century. Could this explain the violent, unstable nature of Ancient Rome?

A google search shows that this is not an original thought. Different theorists have put lead poisoning forth as a possible cause of the Roman Empire's fall.

It's helpful to remember... societies are very capable of poisoning themselves to death.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Fred Consorts With the Devil

No matter what some idiot will tell you, Fred Thompson is not going to be President. Via Kevin Drum, here is an L.A. Times story about how he lobbied for an abortion rights organization... and now insists on denying it. The larger point, I think, is that Thompson was a lobbyist for 17 years. You can't spend that much time on a street corner asking the big boys whether they're looking for a date, and then turn around and run for homecoming queen. Too much embarassing stuff like this is going to crop up.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Oh Say! Marvin Gets It On

Ever heard a song about war sung in a way that makes you want to make out? Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Ask the Question!

From the White House press briefing today:
Q Tony, did Libby directly ask the President for --

MR. SNOW: No, there were no direct communications. And the President has not communicated directly with Scooter Libby.

Two things to note: first of all, Tony Snow doesn't let the reporter finish the question... does he not want to hear any clauses added to it? Second of all, notice the modifier: there were no direct communications.

There is reason to be suspicious that there was a pardon deal. The press needs to ask the question: did the White House have any communications with Libby or his representatives during or after his trial? If so, what was the nature of that communication?

Brooks In Three Acts

David Brooks writes in the Times today about the commutation of Libby's sentence. If like me you sometimes think of him as Dr. Brooks and Mr. Hack... well, he's at his hackiest today. To put his opinion in perspective, let's contrast it with some of the things he said about the Marc Rich pardon.

ACT 1 - Good and Evil
"This is the essence of Clintonism. The other politicians are shorted. With him the sleaze mongers are left gaping and applauding because it just goes to another level."
- David Brooks on the Marc Rich Pardon, February 9, 2001

"President Bush entered the stage like a character from another world, a world in which things make sense."
- David Brooks on the Libby Commutation, July 3, 2007

ACT II - The Disregard of the Inconvenient

"And this was the essential problem, it was the going around the Justice Department that created all the scandals that are now flowering."
- David Brooks on the Marc Rich Pardon, February 22, 2001

"For the first time in his presidency, Bush commuted a sentence without running requests through lawyers at the Justice Department, White House officials said."
- Washington Post, July 3, 2007

ACT III - Wishful Thinking

"And I think what the story does is it lasts."
- Brooks on Marc Rich, February 9, 2001

"The farce is over. It has no significance. Nobody but Libby’s family will remember it in a few weeks time. Everyone else will have moved on to other fiascos, other poses, fresher manias."
- Brooks on Libby, July 3, 2007

Monday, July 2, 2007

Thompson Dud?

I had previously considered Fred Thompson the likely Republican nominee, but after seeing a speech of his on C-Span, I'm having my doubts. He presented no rationale or distinguishing factor for his candidacy. There were no red meat lines. The only thing he got mildly excited about was states rights, and while that's always been a conservative hobby-horse, I doubt it's something he can ride to the White House.

McCain is fatally wounded; Giuliani is a disaster waiting to happen; Thompson is going to be a dud. Something tells me Romney's going to get the nod. Look for giant flip-flops at the Democratic convention.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Goracle Speaks

Al Gore in the New York Times:
The climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a generational mission; a compelling moral purpose; a shared cause; and the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.

I never thought of it that way! It could be fun to be threatened with extinction.

UPDATE: What? Gore got an advance copy of the Sopranos finale? In a Halliburton-made lockbox?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Credit Chernobyl?

Some smart people think this link from the UK Telegraph is a bit alarmist, but it's worth considering. Wall Street has bundled mortgage debt with other obligations in such exotic ways that the sub-prime meltdown could affect not just the housing market but liquidity in other markets: the M&A sector, for instance. Not a pretty picture.

Fred Thompson, Lobbyist for Death Inc.?

This Huffington Post piece about Thompson's service as a lobbyist is worth reading, although it does have silly parts. "Since his days as top minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, Thompson has collected over $1 million in lobbying fees." Geez, he worked as a lobbyist for 17 years. I hope he made more than that... a million bucks would be just a slice better than minimum wage.

I've written before about how Thompson's service as a lobbyist is likely to be a source of embarassment. The piece draws out one such blusher: Thompson lobbied for Philip Morris. It's going to be hard to spin involvement with an industry responsible for so many preventable deaths.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reading to the Right, Shooting to the Left

The way we read text influences the way our eyes scan an image. We usually start at the top left, then go to the top right, then the lower left quadrant and finally the lower right. However, it's wrong to oversimplify what this means -- other factors influence what the eye sees first: compositional elements, bright spots, and the human form can draw the eye no matter where they are located.

Moreover, location affects how we read motion and intention; it doesn't necessarily connote importance. Look at Venus and Adonis by Rubens. The top image is the original one, the bottom one is the flipped image. Notice how Venus and the putto are more effective in the top image: the fact that they're pulling in the same direction we're reading gives their efforts more strength. In the bottom image, Adonis is going in the direction we're reading, and he seems a lot more determined and likely to succeed in tearing himself away because of it. The sky and the pastoral patch on the right feels like a more enticing destination.

Usually, when the masters have painted firing lines they've put the victim on the left and the shooters on the right. Below is Goya's Third of May and Manet's Execution of Maximilian (click to enlarge.) The original images are on the left, the flipped images are on the right.

The firing squads seem stronger when they are flipped onto the left, but the paintings have less tension. The victims seem more hapless when they are on the right, but also less noble and less consequential. Talk shows almost always have the host on the right. Flipping an image of Tim Russert with Peter Pace, you can see why. The setting seems less fair and less congenial.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Dramatic Chipmunk

It's been called the best five-second video on the internet. Can't disagree.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Support or Name Recognition?

Kos has an astute overview of the race for the Democratic nomination.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Performance Art Politics

Mike Gravel, the candidate for President from the Angry Dadaist Party.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Good Eats, Good Show

Lately I've become hooked on Good Eats With Alton Brown on the Food Network. It's not the usual cooking show with a Chef hamming it up in front of a salivating studio audience -- it's more like a wacked-out food documentary. Alton Brown doesn't just tell you the what of cooking, he tells you the how and why and the pronunciation and folklore and science and the competing theories... and on and on. It's like a TV version of Harold McGee's classic On Food and Cooking, which believe me, is high praise.

I'm definitely a foodie, so maybe I'm biased -- but I can't think of a show on TV that is simultaneously as educational and entertaining. (And since I'm on a food tear, check out how Pixar got the kitchen stuff right in Ratatouille.)

Monday, June 11, 2007

Minority Report Redux

Not to be snotty, but waddya know... a really cool Microsoft product.

UPDATE: The two-finger gesturing might be a breach of an Apple patent.

The End of the Sopranos

The Sopranos series finale was the most disappointing end to a major series since Seinfeld sputtered to a final stop. Despite its promising start, the final season flirted with many storylines... but failed to commit to any. Like a precocious teenager, the show seemed scared of not looking cool. It didn't want to seem like it was trying to work, so finally it didn't.

Still, The Sopranos was a landmark show. The best episode of all might still be that first show, where a Mafia boss with a troubled home life is visited by some ducks.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Thompson the Favorite?

Before even entering the race, Thompson is the favorite according to Intrade. I think that's about right, and as I've written before, I think he would be a good match-up for Obama. Also, the generic Dem candidate has a 57% to 42% advantage over the Republican candidate... that's a huge advantage.

Friday, June 1, 2007


This post from NewTeeVee leaves me a little puzzled. It talks of a new TV format being developed in Japan with a resolution of 7,680 x 4,320. Just to put that in perspective, when filmmakers take CGI to 35MM they use around 2,000 pixels of horizonal data, or if they are very conscientious, maybe 4,000. Do we really need a format for the home that has twice the definition of 35MM film? How big would the screen need to be before you saw a difference from HD? People say a monitor needs to be at least 34 inches big before you can notice a difference between 1080p and 720p.

Oh, and how's this for scary: "An uncompressed SHV signal has a bit-rate of 24Gbps." Yikes. My biggest drive would fill up in about 20 seconds.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Upside-down is Right-side-up

Via Andrew Sullivan, here is a link to a page on Ambigrams. Here is my first exposure to this concept, from way back in the 70s:

Look at the logo... now stand on your head and look at the logo.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thompson's In

Fred Thompson has announced his intention to run for the Presidency. I do think he has an excellent shot, since conservatives are dying for an alternative to Rudy McRomney. One good thing about it from the Democratic view: if Thompson wins it completely removes the only serious liability of our most likely nominee, Barack Obama: the Republicans will not be able to say that Obama is not experienced enough: Thompson has only eight years in the U.S. Senate and no executive experience. (Also, about 17 years as a lobbyist which will no doubt provide ample grist for oppo dirt.)

But just so that you don't think I'm in Obama's pocket (at least not yet,) here is a biting comment from Kevin Drum's comments section on Obama's recently unveiled health care plan: "The audacity of blah!" Yep, that about sums it up.

Dobbs Checking

Finally! The New York Times takes on the factually challenged Lou Dobbs.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Framing a Withdrawal Timetable

I have to disagree with Kevin Drum disagreeing with Swopa (although I don't agree with Swopa either.) Swopa argues that we should emphasize our death toll in Iraq to win the argument, but Kevin counters:
The reason we should leave Iraq isn't because the war is costing lives, but because the war isn't critical to our national security.

Trouble is, the area is critical to our national security. Iraq has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, for God's sake. It could draw its Arab neighbors into a fracticidal Sunni-Shia regional conflict. And it could draw our NATO partner Turkey to move against our stalwart Kurd allies.

Those who favor withdrawal can't be seen to be promising flowers and sweets, like the administration did before the war. When we leave, things probably will get worse. But (and here is the rhetorical frame, which also happens to have the virtue of being true): Iraqis are the only ones who can sort this out... and they can do it better by themselves.

Why? A number of reasons:

1) Civil wars are only over when one side knows it has lost. Sunnis see both Republicans and Democrats saying they want to leave; they are aware of American domestic political pressure. The Sunni insurgency will not lose hope until they can take on the Shiites solo, without American interference. Until they do so a Shiite government will not have credibility of force.

2) Any Iraqi government which depends on the protection of the Americans will not be seen as a sovereign government, thus hurting its credibility with the Iraqi people and its neighbors.

3) An Iraq government that has to cater to American desires is handicapped in building its own Iraqi constituency, which inevitably will have contrary desires to America's.

4) Only a portion of the violence in Iraq is anti-American in motivation, but it is not an insignificant portion. By disengaging in the short term and promising to withdraw in the medium-term America would be diminishing an element of opposition. Al Qaeda has very little political support in Iraq. They are thriving only because of the American presence and the anarchy present there. Once a stable government arises, Al Qaeda in Iraq will be crushed.

We have to warn the public that violence will probably get worse, and the resulting government might not be to our liking, but also make it clear that if we stayed we would probably be turning a 2-year civil war into a 10-year civil war.

In other words, we need to talk to Americans like grown-ups.

UPDATE: Kevin Drum responds by e-mail:

Points taken, but I didn't say the area wasn't critical to our national security. I said the *war* wasn't critical to our national security. In fact, I think it's detrimental. I hope this doesn't seem like nitpicking, since I think it's a pretty important difference.

I agree about the possibility that Iraq will get a lot worse once we leave. In fact, I've blogged about this a few times before. It's hard to say exactly how politicians should address this, but I agree that, one way or another, those of us who oppose the war need to prepare the public for this.

Actually, as near as I can tell, we pretty much agree with each other. If there's any real disagreement, it's pretty small.

Substantially, I think our positions are pretty close. And perhaps I didn't characterize Kevin's position fairly. But my quibble was regarding rhetorical emphasis: it's the difference between saying "the war isn't important to us" and "we aren't helping by staying." I think Americans can instinctively grasp the concept that meddling sometimes makes things worse.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Brooks on Immigration

David Brooks makes the best point I've heard about the new immigration bill (unfortunately, the article is behind the TimesSelect curtain):
Harvard is tough to get into. To be admitted to a school like that, students spend years earning good grades, doing community service and working hard to demonstrate their skills. The system has its excesses, but over all it’s good for Harvard and it’s good for the students beginning their climb to opportunity.

The United States is the Harvard of the world. Millions long to get in. Yet has this country set up an admissions system that encourages hard work, responsibility and competition? No. Under our current immigration system, most people get into the U.S. through criminality, nepotism or luck. The current system does almost nothing to encourage good behavior or maximize the nation’s supply of human capital.

Which is why the immigration deal reached in the Senate last week is, on balance, a good thing. It creates a new set of incentives for immigrants and potential immigrants. It encourages good behavior, in the manner of a demanding (though overly harsh) admissions officer. It rewards the bourgeois virtues that have always been at the heart of this nation’s immigrant success, and goes some way to assure that the people who possess these virtues can become U.S. citizens.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Remember the clucks of disdain when Silvestre Reyes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, failed a simple quiz about Al Qaeda?
When asked by CQ National Security Editor Jeff Stein whether al Qaeda is one or the other of the two major branches of Islam -- Sunni or Shiite -- Reyes answered "they are probably both," then ventured "Predominantly -- probably Shiite."

That is wrong. Al Qaeda was founded by Osama bin Laden as a Sunni organization and views Shiites as heretics.

What a doofus, huh? But wait a minute... what's this Gingrich is saying on Meet the Press this morning?

And I think we have dramatically expanded the excitement and incentives of the terrorists, both in the Iranian-funded Shia wing and the Saudi-funded Sunni wing of Al Qaeda. [My Tivo-aided transcription]

And he sounded so professorial saying it too. I wonder... when will the guffaws start?

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Catch-22, Iraqi-style

Josh Marshall writes that "the occupation itself is the cause of the unrest and violence in [Iraq]." I think that's partially true, but more importantly, the occupation is thwarting any resolution of the conflict. Civil wars end when one side knows it has lost. As long as we are in Iraq the insurgency will not know that it has lost. Both Republicans and Democrats say they want the U.S. leave -- Iraqis realize that the occupation isn't forever. Until the U.S. has left, hope will still live in the hearts of the Sunni fighters. The Iraqi government, already cheated of sovereign legitimacy, will not be able to establish its own credibility of force.

It's Catch-22, Iraqi-style. The U.S. can’t leave Iraq until its government can stand by itself. The Iraqi government can’t stand by itself while the U.S. is propping it up.

UPDATE: Check the link... Josh has kindly posted my response to him.

Exactly Backwards?

Via Kevin Drum, here is a Pew Poll diagram on the perceived ideology of the Presidential candidates (click to enlarge). What jumps out at me is that the perception of the Republicans is more or less correct, while the perception of the Democrats is way, way off. In fact, if you reversed their order on the ideological spectrum you would get a closer approximation of the truth: Hillary and Bill are moderates, while Obama and Edwards are the more leftward options. What does this say? I think part of the answer is that it's early and the public doesn't know the candidates well, but I also think the Democrats have lost their old ideological structures and are in the midst of finding new ones. No one is quite sure where any one stands because there are no set measuring sticks quite yet.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Dem Debate

The Dems had their first debate tonight.

Biggest Winner: Mike Gravel. Sure he seemed unhinged, but there's a constituency for that. Gravel is the only one who stood out. I have a feeling he's going to rise from an asterisk into the third tier (there's three tiers.)
Biggest Loser: Dennis Kucinich. Why is he bothering? Still you have to hope that he unaccountably wins: it would be great to have a first lady Dorothy to his President Munchkin.
Most Human: Bill Richardson. Although he could stand to smile a bit more.
Most Evasive: Barack Obama. It's probably just a side effect of being a good politician, but there were two questions that he completely ignored. On the other hand, he had a good moment when he took on Kucinich.
Most Underrated: Chris Dodd. Good man, good answers.
Overachiever: Hillary Clinton. Steady and -- who knew? -- likeable.
Best Answer: Joe Biden's one-word answer to charges that he's too verbose.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Psy-Op Musings

I just finished seeing Bill Moyers' excellent documentary on the media's performance in the run-up to the Iraq war. It reminded me of a detail that I haven't heard mentioned since. In the first hours of the invasion, CNN and other outlets reported that the U.S. was in secret talks with Iraqi Generals to secure their surrender. After the invasion, when no such surrenders were forthcoming, there were no follow-ups.

Obviously, this was a psy-op tactic. Nothing would sow havoc in the Iraqi chain of command more than having Saddam think that he might be betrayed by his top military officers. If the U.S. military were truly in possession of such information, they certainly wouldn't make it public; that would risk the cooperation of these officers, or maybe their removal.

The media was used, and I have to imagine that they must have at least suspected that they were being used. If it had worked, maybe American lives might have been saved during the invasion. Is a journalist justified in betraying his vocation by lying, even when it might save lives?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Vote for Me or Else

Giuliani's shamelessness is just jaw-dropping. How does the guy with no national security experience run on the issue just on the strength of his tough-guy pose?

UPDATE: As usual, Kevin Drum has a smarter take than I do.

Monday, April 23, 2007


Oh, why can't our feckless Democrats frame an issue like Paul Krugman can?
There are two ways to describe the confrontation between Congress and the Bush administration over funding for the Iraq surge. You can pretend that it’s a normal political dispute. Or you can see it for what it really is: a hostage situation, in which a beleaguered President Bush, barricaded in the White House, is threatening dire consequences for innocent bystanders — the troops — if his demands aren’t met.

If this were a normal political dispute, Democrats in Congress would clearly hold the upper hand: by a huge margin, Americans say they want a timetable for withdrawal, and by a large margin they also say they trust Congress, not Mr. Bush, to do a better job handling the situation in Iraq.

But this isn’t a normal political dispute. Mr. Bush isn’t really trying to win the argument on the merits. He’s just betting that the people outside the barricade care more than he does about the fate of those innocent bystanders.

638 days to go.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dowd'ed Down

This is why I can't take Maureen Dowd seriously. You can't bemoan the idiots that lead us and then turn around and apply an idiot criteria to choosing them. This is what got us into this mess to begin with. Remember that oft-repeated bromide: "he's the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with!"?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Org Chart Spaghetti

Via Kevin Drum, here is a characteristically terrific piece by Dahlia Lithwick on the Gonzales testimony:
One of the finest moments comes when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., busts out a big, big chart. Which happens after almost everyone has gone home. The chart compares the Clinton protocol for appropriate contacts between the White House and the DoJ on pending criminal cases with the Bush protocol. According to Whitehouse, the Clinton protocol authorized just four folks at the White House to chat with three folks at Justice. The chart had four boxes talking to three boxes. Out comes the Bush protocol, and now 417 different people at the White House have contacts about pending criminal cases with 30-some people at Justice. You can just see zillions of small boxes nattering back and forth. It seems that just about everyone in the White House, including the guys in the mailroom, had a vote on ongoing criminal matters.

Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., calls this "the most astounding thing" he's seen in 32 years.

641 days to go.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Adobe Gets It

Adobe has announced the release of a new version of its Flash Video Player. It contains important new features which will cement its position as the dominant video format on the web: it will allow downloading, including scheduled downloads in the podcast fashion; and it will also include support for advertising, including unremovability and feedback for advertisers.

The Flash Player already has an unbeatable installed base... better than 90%. Its file sizes are more economic than its competitors and while the quality doesn't match Quicktime, at higher quality settings it looks a lot better than what you're used to seeing on YouTube.

These two new features are important: with the bandwidth we currently have, we'll probably never be able to smoothly stream high-definition video, so scheduled downloads onto a hard drive are likely to be the winning strategy. Likewise, advertisers will probably always be more willing to pay for our eyeballs than we are willing to pay to be rid of their ads, so advertising, rather than pay-to-view or subscription, is likely to be the winning formula.

It is certain that Apple's AppleTV product will have competitors in the race to connect the TV in the living room to the computer in the den, the last step in the internet TV revolution. I no longer consider it likely that Apple's proprietary solutions will give it a dominant market share, although they will be a significant player. Proprietary solutions are getting political pushback, and the media companies will not be willing to have their content controlled by a single company. I think it's more likely that a very diverse market will arise, likely centered on Adobe's open format, and that is all for the better.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sacrifice to the Volcano

It seems that we are now in the midst of an Imus backlash backlash. Bill Maher criticized the firing on his show Friday, somewhat predictably since he's been forced to walk that plank himself. In today's Times Frank Rich speaks out ($) against the response.

There is undoubtedly a public interest in allowing expression that is frank and uninhibited. But just as surely, it is also valuable to enforce norms that forbid unacceptable attitudes and expressions. The Imus firing is the red-hot nexus between those two imperatives. Bill Maher is right when he points out that if the media hadn't amplified Imus's remarks the Rutgers players might not have even heard about it; this isn't about the feelings of those kids. Neither is it a question of Imus's soul: it doesn't matter whether his intelligent interviews or his charity work or his good soul redeem his sometimes crude remarks. It's about letting America know what is acceptable and not acceptable.

Like Al Campanis and Trent Lott and Michael Richards, Imus must be tossed into the Volcano as a sacrifice. The Volcano is our nation's original sin, and all the anger and grief and guilt and desire for redemption that is expelled from it. His prominence only adds to his utility as an example. If the consequences are disproportionate to the crime, that's all for the better too. (I'm not being ironic.)

Sorry, Imus. It's not about you... it's about us.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

New Blue

There are lots of encouraging signs for the future of a progressive movement in the U.S.A., but none so positive as the 30-point lead that Democrats enjoy among under 30s in a generic Congressional choice. Up and coming is the bluest generation since the New Deal.

The data seems to suggest that voting patterns are formed in young adulthood and don't vary much after that. Popular Presidents win over young adults for life; unpopular ones drive them away. If this is true, then a popular Democratic Presidency in 2008 has the potential to realign our politics for decades to come.

With all this potential, I'm struck by how as of yet the movement is still characterized by anti-Bush sentiment rather than ideals, programs and dreams. Perhaps that just comes from living in the shadow of a war.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Buying Versus Renting

There's an interesting article in the New York Times today about the cost of renting versus buying. Money grafs:
Most striking, perhaps, is the fact that prices may not yet have fallen far enough for buying to look better than renting today, except for people who plan to stay in a home for many years...

Over the next five years, which is about the average amount of time recent buyers have remained in their homes, prices in the Los Angeles area would have to rise more than 5 percent a year for a typical buyer there to do better than a renter. The same is true in Phoenix, Las Vegas, the New York region, Northern California and South Florida. In the Boston and Washington areas, the break-even point is about 4 percent.

I've held back from buying so I feel slightly vindicated. Check out the piece. It includes an interactive feature that allows you to plug in the numbers for your particular situation.

UPDATE: What? The history of U.S. housing prices plotted on a roller coaster? Apparently they hacked an Atari game to get this result. What's next? Using first person shooter kills to plot mortgage defaults?

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Sopranos Back in Form

Last night's season opener was one of the best episodes of the series. I know this sounds pretentious, but there was something Chekhovian about it: the lingering melancholy and hidden resentments, the telling details, all of that crippling nostalgia for a life gone by.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Where All Hires are Political Hires

Sometimes articles come out too soon. This important Boston Globe piece came out last year, before the current scandal at Justice, but it highlights what is probably an even worse manifestation of politicizing than the recent firings:
In an acknowledgment of the department's special need to be politically neutral, hiring for career jobs in the Civil Rights Division under all recent administrations, Democratic and Republican, had been handled by civil servants -- not political appointees.

But in the fall of 2002, then-attorney general John Ashcroft changed the procedures. The Civil Rights Division disbanded the hiring committees made up of veteran career lawyers. For decades, such committees had screened thousands of resumes, interviewed candidates, and made recommendations that were only rarely rejected.

Now, hiring is closely overseen by Bush administration political appointees to Justice, effectively turning hundreds of career jobs into politically appointed positions.

653 days to go. Via TPM.

Katie Bar the Door

Here's Kate O'Beirne on Meet the Press this morning (my transcription):
They're [Congress] not trying to circumscribe the President's regal powers, they're trying to circumscribe, the White House argues, his Presidential powers... what they're not permitted to do is to appropriate funds and then tie the Commander-in-Chief's hands with respect to how to deploy those troops and how to conduct those military missions.

I don't think this is what the White House is arguing at all, although I'm sure they're happy to have their allies chat it up. Here's the President at his last press conference:

Q When Congress has linked war funding with a timetable you have argued micromanagement. When they've linked it to unrelated spending, you've argued pork barrel. But now there's talk from Harry Reid and others that if you veto this bill, they may come back and just simply cut off funding. Wouldn't that be a legitimate exercise of a congressional authority, which is the power of the purse?

THE PRESIDENT: The Congress is exercising its legitimate authority as it sees fit right now. I just disagree with their decisions. I think setting an artificial timetable for withdrawal is a significant mistake.

For whatever reason, the White House has already ceded the constitutional point.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Book on the Race

Because markets are highly efficient aggregators of information, I'm convinced bookies give a more accurate outlook on the prospects of an electoral race than pundits do. So here, without comment, are the latest prices from Intrade. Consider them as the equivalent of percentage odds:

Democratic Nomination
Clinton - 48.0
Obama - 31.7
Gore - 9.0
Edwards - 8.0

Republican Nomination
Giuliani - 29.0
Thompson - 19.8
McCain - 19.2
Romney - 16.9

General Election
Clinton - 27.2
Obama - 19.9
Giuliani - 16.0
McCain - 13.7
Thompson - 10.3
Romney - 7.9
Gore - 7.8
Edwards - 5.0

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Obama Cash-O-Rama

The speculation had been that Obama was putting off announcing his first quarter fundraising totals because it was either very good or very bad news. Well, it's very good. With $25 million raised, Obama is just a shade under Hillary's $26 million, but his fundraising base is far wider: more than 100,000 people gave, just about twice Hillary's total. 90% of his contributions were under $100.

This bodes well for Obama's future fundraising prospects. It probably means that fewer of his donors are maxed out, and are thus likely to keep on giving.

Also of note: two of the Dem's leading candidates beat out the Republicans' leading fundraiser, Mitt Romney ($23 million.) This just might be that rare cycle where the Democratic candidate has a monetary advantage over the Republican.