Near Earth Archive

A backup of Near Earth Object by Paul Fidalgo

Month: September, 2011

Obama’s Site-Specific Leadership

Earlier today, Mother Jones‘ David Corn tweeted:

Christie: “If you’re looking for leadership in America, you’re not going to find it in the WH.”/ Tempting to say ask OBL or al-Awlaki?

I bristled at this. Even as a disillusioned Obama-booster, I dislike the notion that somehow leadership = ability to kill. I think this line of argument is far too ham-fisted, and plays on the right’s turf. If we boast in bumper sticker sized blurbs that our guy is better because he’s better at killing, we’ve conceded every other substantive argument.

Thankfully, Andrew Sullivan, outside the character-number limitations of Twitter, expands on the broader significance of Obama’s high-profile terrorist kills, and why they matter:

Compare the two presidents [Bush and Obama]. One unleashed a war in Afghanistan he then left to languish, and sparked an unjustified war in Iraq, that became a catastrophe of mass death and chaos. He both maximally antagonized the Arab and Muslim world and didn’t even score a major victory against the enemy. . . .

I know the next election will be about the economy. But what it should also be about is the revelation of the Republicans as fundamentally weak on national security. Caught up in their own ideology, they proved for eight years they’d rather posture and preen than do the intelligent, relentless, ethical intelligence work that is only now leading to victory.

Obama, in other words, is winning the war Bush kept losing.

I can buy Sullivan’s take on this, and it is indeed somewhat reassuring despite my remaining qualms about Obama’s apathetic (at best) stance on civil liberties during the war on terror. What I have yet to see is this boldness translated to domestic politics. Unfortunately, one cannot send a drone to negotiate with the Tea Party Caucus. Is there not some way, though, that Obama can bring to bear what Sullivan calls his swiftness and decisiveness at home in something other than a war or an election?

If so, why must we waiting a second term to see it?


You Are Demanding More of My Time Than I Feel Free to Give

Sam Harris echoes the point made by Richard Nash on how the value of books can not be measured exclusively in terms of dollars, but in time — more specifically, in quality of time:

I’ve started to think that most books are too long, and I now hesitate before buying the next big one. When shopping for books, I’ve suddenly become acutely sensitive to the opportunity costs of reading any one of them. If your book is 600 pages long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?

The honest answer to this last question should disappoint everyone: Publishers can’t charge enough money for 60-page books to survive; thus, writers can’t make a living by writing them. But readers are beginning to feel that this shouldn’t be their problem.

And we’re not talking about some light reader, here. If Sam Harris thinks an otherwise good book is too long, that’s saying something.

Harris’s experiment in dealing with this new publishing paradigm is his use of the three big publishing platforms all at once: long-form traditional books, his blog, and his latest, the long-form essay for sale, cheaply, as a Kindle Single ebook. I gather from his post on the subject that the reaction he got to publishing Lying in this format was not altogether positive, but I want to use my own platform here to say that, yes, this is a good idea. The middle ground of publishing length (the long-lost “pamphlet,” as it were) needed a place to not only exist, but generate revenue for the author. The Kindle Single format does that brilliantly, and I don’t mind at all paying 2 bucks for something that took the effort, and has the satisfactory impact, of Lying. Single on, sir.

We Have Met the Third Party, and It Is Us

Greg Sargent explains what should be obvious to all those supposed middle-of-the-roaders who dream of fantasy moderate candidates and just wish with all their little hearts that politics were not always played to the extremes of left and right:

Calling for a third party is a quick and easy way to get yourself booked for a round of cable TV appearances. But many of those calling for a third party are refusing to reckon with an inconvenient fact: One of the two parties already occupies the approximate ideological space that these commentators themselves are describing as the dream middle ground that allegedly can only be staked out by a third party.

That party is known as the “Democratic Party,” and it alreadly holds many of the positions these commentators want a third party to espouse.

Admiral Stockdale says, "No, seriously. Why *am* I here?"

Oh that we had a far-left party! If only there was a powerful political party out there that was genuinely serving as a champion for the poor, that truly intended to take on wealthy interests, that saw environmental stewardship as an existential necessity for the species. Would that Obama wasthat president, or that Gore or Kerry had been those candidates, or that the Congresses of 2006-2010 were so devoted.

But because the Republican Party is made entirely of insincere, cynical, self-serving plutocrats whose interests lay entirely with ginning up faux-populist/religious rage to further enrich the already-wealthy, the Democratic Party has no choice but to act as the only party serious about doing any actual governing. The Democrats have no choice but to be the “moderate third party” or literally nothing would ever get done. At all. If the forces that drive the Republican Party are ever sufficiently marginalized (and they won’t be), then it might make sense for a “left” party and a “moderate” party to counter the conservative. But as of now, this doesn’t exist. I can’t imagine a future time when it might.

Russians on Putin’s Entrenchment: “Meh”

Sure he's a despot, but look at those pecs!

One can’t help but wonder at the lackadaisical response to the latest power swap between Dimitri Medvedev and Vladimir Putin by Russia’s electorate (and I use the term loosely). And then I read a quote like this:

“They’re the same,” said Anna Aroyan, a consultant on breastfeeding of infants. “They hand power back and forth. I like them both. They’re sexy, but different. Each has his own charisma. I don’t have any problem with either of them.”

Okay. This New York Times report (which I’ve highlighted at my Papered Over tumblog) is rather enlightening as to the source of this apathy: a hunger for stability and what seems like an almost genetic fatalism. That fatalism is especially apparent when you hear how powerful Putin really is in the minds of some folks.

“In the bigger picture, truly, it’s all the same,” [Tatyana Yevsultsina] said as she strolled in the pale autumn sunshine, “because I believe in God. I see that God controls life, no matter who is in power.”

When the way one justifies acceptance of this kind of autocracy is by saying, ‘Well, at least they’re not as powerful as the supreme being of the universe,’ hope really has been lost.

“If They Like Printed Books, They Should Be Buying the Damn Things”

Richard Nash validates my take on what I call the “But I Love the Smell of Books” argument against the digitization of the traditional codex, focusing on the fact that if books are so important as physical artifacts, they are not being treated as such by the industry or even consumers:

If they like printed books, they should be buying the damn things instead of whining about other people’s preferred mode of reading. So I’m tremendously optimistic about the future of the book as an object. I think the worst years of the book as an object have been the last 50 years.

. . . Because when the book’s primary purpose was not to be an object, but rather to be a mass-produced item for sale in big-box retail, then there’s going to be downward pressure on costs. And so what we have witnessed over the last 50 years is the progressive shittification of the book as an object—a process that is not external to publishing as it was practiced over the last 100 years, but has in fact been at its fore.

Nash argues that those who truly value the physical book will continue to purchase it, that this product will always be available as long as demand exists (which he presumes it will). The real problem for publishing, he says, is one I’ve seen made in a similar way before at Booksquare, there is too much emphasis on what a book costs in terms of dollars rather than on the quality of the content or the experience:

What does a person do when they want something to read? One of the big mistakes that often gets made in publishing is we focus a lot on price. We focus on how much a book costs and we decide whether it’s worth it or not. Now we’ve got a lot more books that are absolutely impoverished. The reality is that people’s decision-making process has a lot more to do with time than with money. It’s 15 hours in the inside of your head. Books are so cheap compared to the hours of entertainment they provide. The problem is, do they provide entertainment? Is it in fact a book you want to read? If after four hours you hate it, what most people say is “I can’t believe I spent fifteen dollars on this.” But what they really mean is “I can’t believe I just wasted four hours of my life on this.”

This is particularly salient for me. I’m not a terribly fast reader — I’m told I “subvocalize” which condemns me to the literary slow lane — so the quality of time spend with a given text is more important to me than almost any other aspect of a book. Yes, I think on the whole 20 to 30 dollars is too much to spend on most books, but, for example, the quality of the experience of reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem was worth far more.

Further Screwing Up an Already-Screwed-Up Electoral System

Watch this Maddow piece, and get an idea why I worked in (and am passionate about) electoral reform.

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Rachel is obviously more focused on the partisan implications of the GOP’s hypocritical tinkering, but I think the wider problem is clear: we have an Electoral College that distorts, confuses, and taints the actual will of the American electorate.

And think, you could solve it with three easy steps.

  1. A constitutional right to vote (which does not exist), so that efforts to make it difficult to vote for president can be more robustly challenged
  2. Abolition of the Electoral College (or adoption of the National Popular Vote compact) so that the president is elected directly by the people and
  3. A ranked voting system like Ranked Choice/Instant Runoff Voting so that not only will the president be elected by national popular vote, but whoever is elected would be nearly guaranteed to be a consensus majority choice rather than someone who squeaked by due to the strength of third party spoilers.

Done! A smarter system buffeted by the Constitution itself.

These are the guys that do this for a living. You should pay them more attention, because they’re trying to save the country.

“Looks Like You Just Earned the $20 Million”

Fred Rogers makes the case for PBS and publicly funded children’s programming to the U.S. Senate in 1969.

Hat tip Bernard Bygott.

I Hate Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney for President!

I don’t think those of us in the reality-based community are sufficiently panicked about the prospect of a Rick Perry presidency. First, it’s foolish to think that Barack Obama has this election in the bag no matter who the GOP nominates. Second, Rick Perry is running away with this primary right now, besting Romney by double digits in most national and state polls. Third and most importantly, he’s just the right combination of dumb, ruthless, and insane to be formidable, electable, and unthinkably dangerous. Dangerous in foreign policy, dangerous in his rejection of science (or better-put, “knowledge“), dangerous in how he is likely to treat the poor and uninsured, dangerous in his brazen theocratic leanings. Dangerous, really, because he could win and start getting his way.

In most conventional races, one hopes that the opposing party nominates their craziest partisan so that our guy or gal can crush them in the center-focused general election. Perhaps in most cycles, Perry would be among that group of candidates. I’d be a little giddier if I thought, say, Michele Bachmann or Newt Gingrich were close to scoring the top of the GOP ticket. For the Republicans to nominate a less rabid conservative would make Obama’s chances all the narrower. But Perry has emerged in a unique time, a time in which a charming, folksy nut bag can take advantage of the desperation, ignorance, and fear of even the political center and win the White House.

Now, there is no acceptable GOP candidate (save perhaps Jon Huntsman, who I think could make a plausible run for the Democratic nomination as a kind of moderate, blue dog type). All of them would be disastrous for the country, disaster for the principles held dear by liberals, disaster for the poor and working classes, disaster for the separation of church and state, disaster for national security and foreign policy.

But there are degrees. No one would doubt, for example, in 2000, that even though George W. Bush turned out to be a disaster of unpredictable proportions, that, say, a Gary Bauer or Alan Keyes presidency would have been triply or quadruply worse. There are degrees.

This is why progressives and Democrats (not the same thing) should defy convention. Stop rooting for a Bachmann or Palin nomination, because neither will happen. Likewise, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain are all destined to at some point lose this nomination race. There are only two possibilities: Perry and Mitt Romney. Rooting for Perry is total folly. He could be elected, perhaps rather easily, and would be perhaps the most damaging of any of the aforementioned candidates (save perhaps Bachmann, but she lacks any political skill for actual governing, which I will get to). Given the very real — even likely — possibility of a Republican in the White House in 2013, there is really only one thing left to say.

Mitt Romney for president!

Not really “for president” of course. But liberals should wish with all their hearts, and do whatever they can, to see that Romney wins the GOP nomination. Do opposition research for him on Perry, lift up other right-wing candidates to steal his thunder, speak well of Romney — in conservative terms of course, whenever possible. (Example: “It sure seems like Romney has a better plan for lowering taxes than Perry.”) If you can spare it, donate to Romney’s campaign, and specify it for the primary season.

I know this sounds crazy, but it’s crucial. Less than keeping Obama in office, progressives should really focus their efforts on making sure Rick Perry never becomes president. Ever. That means taking the chance that Romney might be instead.

You know I loathe Mitt Romney. To make a case for him pains me more than I can tell you. But many of those reasons for which he earns my disgust are the very reasons why he would be preferable to Perry. Consider:

  • The most obvious: Romney is at his heart more moderate than Perry. Yes, his positions on gay marriage, abortion, taxes, health care, etc. are wrong, but they are less wrong than Perry’s.
  • He is far smarter than Perry, and far less jingoistic. While he has made no bones about publicly detesting Obama’s insufficient slobbering love for American super-awesomeness, he is at least a shrewd and subtle thinker who is less prone to blunder the country into some military disaster because of some knee-jerk macho overreaction.
  • Most importantly: Mitt Romney has no principles. He is of and entwined with the rich establishment, but he is primarily concerned with self-elevation. His flip-floppiness, his willingness to say and do anything to earn political favor make him a far better Republican to have in charge than the Idiot King, Rick “Treat-Him-Pretty-Ugly” Perry.

Think about it. Though we are, for now, taking an unfortunate and dangerous lurch to the right in American politics, it can not be permanent. If 2006 and 2008 taught us anything, it’s that Republican policies and behavior allowed to run rampant eventually make their flaws transparent. The country will lurch back toward the center.

With Perry in the Oval Office, he will, even more so than George W. Bush, stand firm in his wrongheadedness, and remain steadfast in fighting for his far-right laundry list of tragic priorities.

But Romney will feel those political winds, and bend with them. To every breeze and gust of moderation and progressivism, Romney will open himself up like a sail and drift, drift. Romney is eminently pliable, and that is our best hope. As his only concern will be his own preservation, a President Romney would adjust his course as the political currents take the country in directions he would normally find uncomfortable — but not unfamiliar. Romney the Senate candidate backed abortion rights. Romney the governor passed universal health care. All because his constituency, the source of his political winds in Massachusetts, was center-left.

Perry is a terrifying threat to the health of our democracy, to the integrity of everything America has achieved since Roosevelt. Both of them, even! Romney would be a huge disappointment, and do his own level of damage to the country. But the impact crater of his presidency’s collision with the electorate would be far smaller than if we ran headlong into a Perry presidency.

So I say without reservation: Until August 27, 2012 at the opening of the Republican National Convention, Romney for president!

Words with Friends Teaches Political Correctness

Sorry, fag is not an acceptable word

Oh, how embarrassing! My sincere apologies!

Hat tip to my lovely wife.

My Genes Begin to Express Themselves

My boy Toby, when given a basketball to play with, presumes it is something to hug and cuddle.

Yeah, I don’t get sports either, buddy. It’s okay. Let’s go watch some PBS, and then I’ll teach you to roll a d20.