Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ruminations on McCain's VP Pick Part III

Ok, one last post (no promises) on this pick. The more I think about it the more I like it, I like, at least, the symbolism behind it.

Sarah Palin, in many symbolic ways, can be seen as almost a carbon copy of Barack Obama. Both have pretty compelling life stories, both are non-traditional candidates. Both come from modest but not poor families. Both are self-made, having worked their way up the political ladder through their own work and political skill. Both are young, part of the new generation of political leaders, not beholden to the nastiness that defined the baby-boom Vietnam generation. Both have a chance to represent and shape what both political parties may become moving into the 21st century. Since the old policies and politics have been largely played out and have now largely been proven ineffective. If you want change in Washington, both candidates can represent change. But the similarities don't end with that, both candidates have stable and strong families, both candidates grew up in states (Hawaii and Alaska) not part of the continental US. Both even enjoy and are good at basketball... Even more so, both have admitted to past drug use. My head is spinning.

And ironically enough, the other halves of the political tickets are almost carbon copies of each other. Biden and McCain are even friends and colleagues. Both have been in the Senate for years and years. Both have compelling life stories. Both have a reputation for straight talk. Both have had health issues (McCain's cancer, Biden's brain aneurysm). For both, foreign policy is their first love, and both, in that respect, have a ton of experience and connections to fall back on.

There are some significant differences of course. The Republican party has been burdened by decades of political success and so have not been forced to really reinvent themselves like the Democratic party has.

But more than that, this ticket from the Republican party seems a little forced, a little artificial to me. McCain won the ticket by luck and by accident. He lucked out that the other independent, politically moderate candidate with an appeal to independents, Rudy Giuliani, didn't even step foot in the early states, leaving McCain an open and unfettered shot at that demographic. Romney, meanwhile, had his votes peeled away by Mike Huckabee, who took advantage of Romney's religion to take significant chunks of the Christian right away from him. Obama had to claw and scratch to the bitter end to take down the Clinton machine, and he did it by sheer effort, superior organizing, and by tapping into vast political skill.

In that respect, McCain has had to try too hard to win over his base, and it still seems to me to be an uneasy marriage. The base doesn't trust McCain, and McCain just seems to be playing the part long enough to win their votes. Meanwhile, Biden is largely loved by the Democratic base. The Democrats have long gotten used to their political leaders moving to the center, so they are more comfortable with political moderation and "betrayal". Biden's hawkishness is authentic, and I think many on the left have just grown to accept that Democrats are going to be that way.

Biden, unlike Palin, actually ran for president in this election cycle as well. Biden and Obama know each other, have worked with each other in the Senate, and seem to really enjoy each other. From some accounts, McCain has only personally met Palin one time.

Additionally, Obama seems more authentically about something tangibly new for the Democratic party. More on this later, but his message of bi-partisanship, and get things done compromise, is more than just sloganeering, its authentic. He also, as I said previously, actually signed up for this, so he's been working harder and longer both at his rapid political ascension and at this bruising presidential campaign than Palin.

Ironically, even though Palin is young, fresh, and new, McCain actually seems more naturally the change candidate than Palin does (at least at first glance). Just like Obama, there seems to be a lot of projection of other peope's hopes and dreams onto Palin. People see her as the conservative's one last ditch effort to preserve the Christian political base of the Republican party. We'll see if she lives up to that, but at least on the surface she seems to be pretty firmly pro-life, pro-drilling, pro-oil, pro-Christian right ideology. I suspect she has a more modern projection of these ideas, but I also suspect that she simply has had not enough time or opportunity to really firm up what her positions are in so many of these areas. She's going to have to learn quickly and come across to the voting public that she's a candidate with depth, that she has a firm and deep grasp on the important national issues of the day.

So, in summary, the Democratic ticket seems much more natural, more authentic than does the Republican ticket. I think on that alone, the Democrats should win this election.

I'm excited for the Republican ticket, however, because of the sheer audacity of this ticket, it gives them a better opportunity to present what the Republican party can represent going forward. Palin, in many ways, is their answer to Obama. And I'm excited to really see what that answer is all about. I'm just afraid it has come way too late in the game, like a poorly prepared student cramming for the final exam the night before the test.

But the Republican party's future and the future of our country lies in how well the McCain/Palin ticket does. Our country is more than a country of democrats. It behooves us all for both political parties to be strong, relevant, and vibrant.

My hopes and prayers lie firmly with Palin tonight as much as they do with Obama.

Ruminations on McCain's VP Pick Part II

I really wanted to use this time to talk about Obama's speech in more depth and about the meat of his policy, but this VP pick is taking all of the air out of the room. So, if that was what McCain was going for, mission accomplished.

I wanted to link a really good rebuttal to the experience question, here.

First of all, if you compare Palin's experience to Obama's experience when it comes to readiness for the president of the United States, unless you are a partisan hack, this should be no contest, Obama is more ready right now.

Here's the best explanation I've read as to why:

Yes, if I had been a Democratic donor back in 2006, I'd sure worry about whether Barack Obama had what it took to be president. That was before he took on the toughest political operation in America, before he beat Bill and Hillary Clinton, before he won 18 million primary votes.

Obama's nomination was not handed to him. He fought hard for it and won against the odds. "Qualifications" predict achievement. Once you have achieved, it doesn't matter what your qualifications are. Who cares whether the guy who built a big company from nothing didn't have much of a resume when he started? But if you are applying to run a big company built by somebody else, the resume matters ...

In sum, Obama has more experience than most people who criticize him seem to want to give him credit for. But, Obama's appeal was never about his experience solely, but about his potential. And his achievements since he's started running has shown his ability to live up to his potential.

Palin doesn't have near as a high of a bar that Obama has had to (and still has to) clear, but she definitely has a bar to clear.

One big difference between the two, Obama signed up for it, prepared himself for it, and worked for it. Palin was hand picked for some pretty obvious political reasons.

We'll see if she's up to the task over the next few months as she will come under some pretty intense scrutiny and will be expected to perform at a high level. It's a political risk for McCain, but I guess he felt like he had to take it.

By the way, by all accounts Palin is incredibly accomplished and talented and has worked for all she's gotten. It just doesn't seem she's had the time (she's only 44), the opportunity, or the desire (up to now) to reach this high, this fast.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ruminations on the VP Pick

There's talk all over the internet already about the McCain's pick for vice president. For those of you who don't know, the choice by McCain this morning was Sarah Palin of Alaska. Check out her page on wikipedia. It's actually interesting. She's young, 44. She has a thin resume for a VP candidate. Governor of a Alaska, population 800,000 for about a year, mayor of a town of 8000 people before that. No one knows too much about her.

Why in the world again would McCain choose Palin as VP when there were other better candidates? It's hard to make sense of it.

But to get a sense of how ridiculous our political environment is, you'll find the folks at the liberal websites trashing her, but even more inexplicably the folks at the republican blogs praising this pick like it was going to win McCain the presidency.

Substantively, the main problem with this pick is that how can someone this unknown and this new, this fresh really be ready to be President? Isn't that the most important requirement? Can they step in if something happens to the president?

Now, those folks on the republican side keep saying that she's at least as experienced as Obama. Really? I agree with Andrew Sullivan is this how little Republicans think of Barack Obama? If so, they are badly underestimating him. More likely, they have no idea what Obama has done in his life.

But even if it were true, he's basically contradicting his own criticisms against Obama. If one of the criteria for VP is that you want someone who is willing to take the role of the president if the worst happens, does McCain really think Palin is ready to lead? If so, than Obama surely is ready to lead.

It doesn't make sense politically to make this sort of gamble.

But to be honest, nothing feels right to me about McCain's campaign, and this pick really typifies it.

I've read that McCain started the campaign hoping to run as a Maverick turning his plane into another incarnation of the straight talk express. But the problem is that in today's political environment, its hard to run for president like this. The press gets too much access to you, and your liable to say something stupid. Even more damaging, nobody was paying attention unless he said something stupid because Obama was getting so much of the attention.

So, he changed. He decided to play to win, which makes sense, but not to win on his terms, but on the Republican party's terms, in a way reminiscent of Bush Jr.

McCain used the month of August to sling mud at Obama, stupidly comparing him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. Or taking his commments out of context to make Obama look completely oblivious to our national security threats, playing on our fears. He streamlined his message, staying consistently and annoyingly on message, never deviating. Limiting the press's access to him. McCain the maverick was becoming McCain the good soldier. And his message was annoyingly simple: Tough on foreign policy, tough on foreign policy, tough on foreign policy, and his constant references to his time as a POW.

And then this pick comes out of nowhere.

So, in one fell swoop, McCain's trying to find someone who can appeal to his conservative religious base, enhance his image as a maverick willing to take on the system, draw Hillary supporters who feel slighted by Obama, find someone outside of Washington who is young and full of energy to match Obama's appeal, maybe win him some states in the west, and be someone enough out of the box to shake his campaign up.

The problem is that if you're trying to be all things to all people you just end up being nothing to nobody.

I'm afraid this is where McCain's campaign is heading. By November, you may see much of his base dispirited and hopeless, many staying home. No way, Hillary supporters look at Palin and see a kindred spirit. If anything, this pick drives them back to Obama. And his best argument against Obama has just been harpooned by himself.

Is Obama ready to lead McCain may ask? Is McCain? If these are the ways he'll continue to make his decisions going forward, I'm not sure I would trust McCain to run this country.


One of the smartest articles I've read defending the Palin pick is here.

However, in this article it also says:
"I realize, of course, that she’s totally unqualified to be President at this point in time. If McCain were to die in February 2009, I hope Palin would have the good sense to appoint someone who is more ready to be President to be her Vice President, on the understanding that she would then resign and be appointed Vice President by her successor."

One of his points is that one justification for the Palin pick (beyond the obvious political reasons) was to use the VP as a presidential training position.

This seems awfully close to how communist regimes select olympians. Handpick children at an early age to train them for bigger things later.

Shouldn't these kind of positions be earned? Palin quite simply hasn't earned this pick.

In the words of James Fallows "In Palin's case, this seems to be a choice that looks forward to Election Day, and not one day beyond that."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

I couldn't have come close to saying it better myself

I've been following this guy obsessively. Here's Andrew Sullivan's post-Obama comments word for word:

"It was a deeply substantive speech, full of policy detail, full of people other than the candidate, centered overwhelmingly on domestic economic anxiety. It was a liberal speech, more unabashedly, unashamedly liberal than any Democratic acceptance speech since the great era of American liberalism. But it made the case for that liberalism - in the context of the decline of the American dream, and the rise of cynicism and the collapse of cultural unity. His ability to portray that liberalism as a patriotic, unifying, ennobling tradition makes him the most lethal and remarkable Democratic figure since John F Kennedy.

What he didn't do was give an airy, abstract, dreamy confection of rhetoric. The McCain campaign set Obama up as a celebrity airhead, a Paris Hilton of wealth and elitism. And he let them portray him that way, and let them over-reach, and let them punch him again and again ... and then he turned around and destroyed them. If the Rove Republicans thought they were playing with a patsy, they just got a reality check.

He took every assault on him and turned them around. He showed not just that he understood the experience of many middle class Americans, but that he understood how the Republicans have succeeded in smearing him. And he didn't shrink from the personal charges; he rebutted them. Whoever else this was, it was not Adlai Stevenson. It was not Jimmy Carter. And it was less afraid and less calculating than Bill Clinton.

Above all, he took on national security - face on, full-throttle, enraged, as we should all be, at how disastrously American power has been handled these past eight years. He owned this issue in a way that no Democrat has owned it since Kennedy. That's a transformative event. To my mind, it is vital that both parties get to own the war on Jihadist terror and that we escape this awful Rove-Morris trap that poisons the discourse into narrow and petty partisan abuse of patriotism. Obama did this tonight. We are in his debt.

Look: I'm biased at this point. I'm one of those people, deeply distressed at what has happened to America, deeply ashamed of my own misjudgments, who has shifted out of my ideological comfort zone because this man seems different to me, and this moment in history seems different to me. I'm not sure we have many more chances to get off the addiction to foreign oil, to prevent a calamitous terrorist attack, to restore constitutional balance in the hurricane of a terror war.

I've said it before - months and months ago. I should say it again tonight. This is a remarkable man at a vital moment. America would be crazy to throw this opportunity away. America must not throw this opportunity away.

Know hope. "

Some Quick Democratic Convention Thoughts

Yes, the conventions can be accurately described as a week long infomercial for a political party. Yes, its short on policy and long on red-meat one liners hoping to inspire an electorate around a candidate and throw as many flaming arrows at the other side.

But its quite good fun. For a short while I was worried that the Democratic party this week had gone soft, unwilling to play tough and throw some mud at McCain. I was worried because I knew McCain and company would have no trouble doing the same when it was there turn.

I hate politics like this of course, but a part of me loves it as long as its done above the belt and in good fun. I think last night's convention fit that description quite well.

Last night it was all about Bill Clinton, John Kerry, and of course Joe Biden. Bill's speech was incredible in a word. It was interesting to listen to him through the eyes of a Democrat after a decade of despising him in the 1990's. He has an ego of epic proportions, of course, even at presidential standards. But he has such wonderful charisma, a way at communication that makes you feel connected to him, something Obama doesn't quite have.

And he answered one of the main criticisms McCain has been using against him when he said "Together, we prevailed in a campaign in which the Republicans said I was too young and too inexperienced to be Commander-in-Chief. Sound familiar? It didn't work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history. And it won't work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history."

In a word, Bill Clinton was ready to lead, and so is Obama today.

Kerry's speech was surpisingly seering, and Biden's speech was good as well.

The main themes coming out of this convention:

1) The Democratic party will do more to address the increased disparity between the rich and the poor, will do more for the lower and middle class. This is often said, but for the first time, its credible. Bush's tax cuts have been increasingly been shown to be ineffective at best, damaging at worst. Obama proposes to cut taxes deeper and more broadly for those on the lower end of the economic scale and increase taxes for the uber-rich (>$250k/year). Makes sense since those folks have enjoyed an unbelievably large share of the spoils of our economic growth and increase productivity over the last 10 to 20 years (Bill Clinton laid out the stats here quite well).

2) The Democratic party will do more to repair our reputation and standing abroad with more emphasis on cooperation and tough diplomacy, and more care with our military resources. This again is a common sense message, one the Republican party used to be all about and one Bush has started to finally realize after seven years of craziness.

3) They are going to do all they can to line McCain up with Bush's record. For a while, early on I felt this was an unfair attack on McCain because of McCain's independent credentials, but the way McCain has chosen to redefine himself with Rove's staff with Bush's below the belt tactics, and with an emphasis on cowboy talk foreign policy (the exact opposite of Teddy Roosevelt's talk of speak softly but carry a big stick - indeed under Bush our stick has been weakened - look how helpless we are on dealing with Russia and Iran both).

Finally, Obama's speech tonight will be exciting. There's been talk that he's making a mistake holding it at the football stadium that it will play right into McCain's celebrity attacks. But Obama made a surprise appearance yesterday saying that his campaign was all about uniting and inspiring Americans so that change can come from the grassroots bottom up.

Its hard to imagine that actually happening in practice, but its exactly how Obama has raised his money, its how he beat Hillary, and its Democracy at its best. So, I'm all for it and I'm excited.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A shift, for a time, no essays, this space is turning into a political blog until the election is over

Sorry, I have been entirely too anxious about this election. I really like McCain generally. I have been a big fan of his for a while. I like his honesty, his independent streak. I just don't think he would make a good president.

Actually, I think the Republican party is in trouble, they have gone off the deep end. Everything is a slogan for them, and sloganeering politics tends to send you off a cliff into extremism, and that, in my mind is what this party has become. The Democrats, by contrast, has largely been the party of pragmatism and moderation, almost by default...

So, in that vain, no more essays for a while, just many, many quick hitting blog posts.

Here, I'm referencing another's blog. It explains in great simplicity why McCain's foreign policy views are extreme and dangerous. Also, it shows how willing he is to lie about Obama to win this election.

McCain didn't use to be a liar, sadly, he's turning into one to win an election.

Here's the post: Smears and Fears


One quote from the post:
"Even the successful removal of the Taliban has led, six years later, to a long and grueling counter-insurgency with no end in sight and a reconstituted al Qaeda in a nuclear-armed, unstable state. The invasion of Iraq - in the abstract, a noble cause against an evil enemy - has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of millions, the price of $3 trillion ... all for a less despotic Shiite government in league with Iran, making contracts with China. And that's if it turns out as a success."

And Another:
"It has been to propose a "surge" in Afghanistan, to aggressively embrace open-ended commitment to Iraq (if the Iraqis can be pressured hard enough), and to launch one new hot war against Iran and another cold one - and hot, by proxies - against Russia. And the way in which the question is debated - around asinine concepts of "toughness" or "sissiness" - leads to facile decisions."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Should I Write Shorter More Blog-like Blogs?

Last night my wife did this all-night girls outing with some other women from our church at a hotel in downtown Tempe. She's done things like this before, usually not all-nighters, but sometimes, and its her chance to get a break from the kids, spend some quality talk time with friends... Maybe a chance to let out some steam (ok, its her time to gossip, she denies this, but it is what it is)...

Cool, well, the next day I always try to pry as much information out of her as I can, but inexplicably, she has trouble remembering, or maybe that is her cover, I'm not totally sure...

But she did tell me about one thing that came up, my blog, and there were two specific areas of constructive criticism discussed:

Criticism 1:
My blog entries are too log.

My Response:
This would be true, except for the fact that my blog is not really a blog. It looks like a blog, acts like a blog, and smells kind of like a blog, but its not a blog. Unfortunately, I'm using blogger to host it so people kind of assume because its on a blog hosting website, its a blog. I understand that, but its not.

Someday soon (after I finish this massive project to re-organize my office), I will transfer everything to a format that will make it much more obvious what I'm trying to do. And maybe I will start doing more bloggy like things at that time as well, when I can clearly differentiate what I'm doing here with something like that...

Because what I'm trying to do here is to write essays, and not those toy five paragraph essays you learn to write in school, but essays where an idea is fully flushed out to an appropriate amount of depth. These sort of things can go on for pages... Shorter than a book, but a well written, researched, and thorough essay can easily go on for 20 or more pages.

We subscribe to the New Yorker, and the articles in there are essays. After I get through reading one about Barack Obama, for example, I really feel like I understand the candidate in a deep way. It usually takes me about 3 or 4 sittings to get through one (yes I bookmark that magazine), but its worth the effort. Reading good essays are one of the most enjoyable things I do; I feel more informed, smarter on a particular topic, and usually very excited about learning a new idea.

Nothing I write is anything near that quality, but one of my goals is by doing more serious writing, I will get better. And its my hobby. Writing is a form of personal discovery, so I'm able to really understand and even discover new ideas as I write. It's satisfying to me, even without an audience... It helps to have one, though, because having at least the prospect of an audience is a motivator.

Criticism 2:
I'm not writing to my audience.

My Response:
For some reason, most of those who read my blog (or at least check in on it on occasion) are my wife's friends.... I did not plan for this to happen, but I think it did for maybe two reasons:

1) When I first started my blog, my wife advertised it in our family newsletter, and some of her friends are subscribers. Second, I'm linked to her blog, so readers of her blog (her friends) found mine, and through my association with her, come to mine.

2) None of my friends write or read blogs... It seems, at least in my small circle, that blogging is a more female-oriented activity. This is certainly not true in a broad sense. There a a ton of sports and political related blogs out there that have a lot of male participation, but I don't know too many people personally who write those.

Two and a half exceptions of men I know that blog:

Bill's and Matt's, and Davey's, that he really shares with Rachel.

So, Sara's friend's blogs are true blue blogs, and as "web logs" where the term comes from, tend to be about their family and daily events, are chronologically written, tend to be short, are written on a almost daily basis, and include lots of pictures...

And the blogs they read are written by their friends who are doing the same kinds of things. I have no problem with that, obviously, my wife blogs in this way, but I'm not doing that...

So, if these are the people who come to my blog, and find an entry that just goes on and on, with no pictures, isn't about anything specifically to what's going on with my life right now, necessarily, and/or about a topic they could care less about, they usually just skip it.

Which leads me to the problem my wife was trying to solve when she gave me this feedback:

The no comment problem
Obviously, I do have plenty of comments on some of my blog posts. There are millions of blogs out there, so I have no expectation of being one of those famous bloggers with 50-100 comments with every entry. I would have to really stand out for that, and since I have a day job....

But because my blog is not a blog, but a collection of essays, some of my blogs even those written several weeks ago are still relevant, I could have easily written them today...

So, occasionally I get a comment on something I wrote some time ago...

But because I'm on blogger, my old essays are kind of hidden from view, so people who aren't checking regularly will miss some of those, and not know to look. Here are a few examples of some I've written in the past that easily could have been written today:

Are Democrats Smarter than Republicans....

Why We are Homeschooling

Faith Quandries

So, I'm not worried if one essay gets no comments, maybe something will resonate with someone later. It's usually a timing thing, you are ready for information when you are ready for it and not always when its available. So, just because a topic is interesting enough for me to write about, doesn't mean it's interesting enough for you to read about.

Or, it could be the essay just sucks, and that's ok too. I have thoughts and ideas about pretty dumb things, and it would be better that nobody reads those anyway... In fact one of the good things about life, is that if you do or say (or write) something dumb, as long as you realize it eventually, you can correct it (or remove it from public view), and people will eventually forget about it, as long as you don't keep doing, saying, or writing the same kind of stupid things...

Or maybe my "audience" is just getting tired of what I'm doing overall, and everyone just collectively stops reading. I guess that's always a risk with everyone's blog. But this is all more for me than for you, anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter.

I also have a goal to go back to some of the old essays, revise and refine some of them. Keep some around, maybe trash others...

So, I really don't care about the "no comments" problem... It's nice to get comments, don't get me wrong. It's even nicer to have a discussion, but many of the readers of this blog might not realize is that I also belong to a yahoo political group.

One thing I have been doing is to link a blog I write here on that group with some surrounding commentary, and we can have those discussions there in that forum...

So I do get my chance to discuss outside of this blog...

The problem is that yahoogroups is not a great place to organize essays, e-mails are not linkable, and the stuff I do there seems way too temporary... Here, it is open for everyone, and available for me to reference any time I need to.

So, everyone still with me (I'm sure some of you saw the length of this entry and decided to skip it altogether or have tuned out one paragraph in - no worries), I appreciate your concern, and maybe I'll write a true-blue blog someday, but right now, I'm having too much fun writing essays.

With or without comments (or readers)...

Monday, August 18, 2008

If Obama were to lose the Presidency in 2008 it will largely be because of his race, and no one will realize it

This weekend I was able to do a vacation assisted finish of the book, Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. This was such a remarkable book at so many levels. . I am sure you have seen or heard of or even read this book. It has been on the best seller list, you probably passed it at the bookstore and saw the innovative title and interesting book cover and wondered a bit about it. Or perhaps you’ve heard of the author’s previous book, “The Tipping Point”. I know I had, I think I heard a little interview with the author on the radio, or I at least have some vague memory of having done so.

I really love this book because it hit on so many issues that I'm both very interested in and have thought a lot about. The book also brings up some rather startling new pieces of information I have never once considered, which is always a good thing.

The book, in essence, is about how powerful our subconscious is in helping us make decisions and influencing the way we perceive situations outside of our immediate awareness. The book spends some time describing some remarkable examples of this:

1. A former tennis star and remarkable tennis coach who has been in the sport for decades who was able to tell exactly when a tennis player was about to double fault at the moment just before the contact with the ball is made.

2. A psychologist who has spent countless hours studying video taped conversations of married couples trying to spot subtle signs in the conversation, tone of voice, expressions on the face of trouble in their marriage. How they can predict with I believe 96% accuracy whether a marriage will succeed or fail based solely on a video recorded conversation regarding some issue in the marriage.

3. How a fireman is able to quickly assess the conditions of a fire ravaged room, and without being able to completely pinpoint why, knows immediately something is wrong, retreats from the room just as the floor collapses.

The author Malcolm Gladwell describes this almost sixth sense as thin slicing. The ability to quickly scan the situation allowing the brain behind a literal locked door outside the perception of conscious thought, make surprisingly complex and at times wildly accurate judgments about the situation.

This is all very interesting to me because as a Mormon, we spend a lot of time talking about this sixth sense which we know to be aided by the whisperings from Heaven above helping us along. But of course, spiritual explanations do not cover it for me... We live our rather complex lives absorbing a lot of information, all of this gets stored, very little of it is easily retrieved in our conscious mind, much of it is available, or so it seems, for our subconscious to gather, process, and make rapid fire and use to provide context for our present, in the moment situations.

This thin-slicing is a necessity, in fact, for a soldier in a time of war, for a police officer or an athlete or for all of us as we perform in real-time, as we interact with others, reading their minds by reading emotions and fleeting expressions that just so up imperceptibly on their faces...

But of course, there's a dark side to it as well. As we feed our soul with garbage and misinformation, we develop fears, prejudice, and just flat out wrong stereotypes.

In the book, Gladwell spends a lot of time on the topic of race, making it crystal clear how difficult it is get succeed as a black man in America:

Implicit Association Test (IAT)

There’s a category of tests called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) designed to measure how much we correlate certain groups with each other. The book describes how we are programmed to correlate women more closely with home and family and men more closely with work and career. More controversially, we also are more prone to associate black men with bad emotions like evil or hurt, and white men with good feelings. Try it for yourself, the link to take this particular test is:

I just took it and I'm ashamed to say that I showed to have a strong preference for European Americans over African Americans which is extremely disturbing to me... To my defense I think I probably gamed the system a little too much trying to prove a point for this blog, but I do admit that it was easier to group black with negative words and white with positive words. I think there is more than race to this. The color black is often associated with evil and vice versa. I really believe that had something to do with the score.

Also, while I do have one black friend currently, and I have had black friends in the past, I would have scored better on the test if I have had more rich associations with black people in my life. My mission, in heart of Alabama, was of course, a long time ago. I'm hoping I would have scored much better on the test if I took it while I was serving... But still, its incredibly disturbing.

But I'm not alone, in fact the author himself (who is half black by the way), tested a preference for European Americans:

“It turns out that more than 80 percent of all those who have ever taken the test end up having pro-white associations, meaning that it takes them measurably longer to complete answers when they are required to put good words into the 'Black' category than whey they are required to link bad things with black people”. (p 84)

Does this matter?

“If you have a strongly pro-white pattern of associations, for example, there is evidence that will affect the way you behave in the presence of a black person. It’s not going to affect what you’ll choose to say or feel or do. In all likelihood you won’t be aware that you’re behaving any differently than you would around a white person. But chances are you’ll lean forward a little less, turn away slightly from him or her, close your body a bit, be a bit less expressive, maintain less eye contact, stand a little farther away, smile a lot less, hesitate and stumble over your words a bit more, laugh at jokes a bit less. Does that matter? Of course it does. Suppose the conversation is a job interview. And suppose the applicant is a black man. He’s going to pick up on that uncertainty and distance, and that may well make him a little less certain of himself, a little less confident, and a little less friendly. An what will you think then? You may well get a gut feeling that the applicant doesn’t really have what it takes, or maybe that he is a bit standoffish, or maybe that he doesn’t really want the job. What this unconscious first impression will do, in other words, is throw the interview hopelessly off course.”

He goes on to site a study that shows black men and women are more likely to get quoted a higher starting price when negotiating for a car than white men. And even after intense negotiation they are only able to get it down to a price still higher than the start price quoted to white men.

Or another example, when a black person is asked to identify their race before they take the GRE (a standardized test for graduate school admission), they end up doing notably worse on the test than when they are not asked the question.

Also, he sites the more obvious and depressing statistics about incarceration rates of black men:

“One of the striking characteristics of the criminal justice system in the United States is how much more likely blacks are to be arrested and convicted and imprisoned for crimes than whites are. I’m not talking here about racial differences in overall crime rates. What I’m talking about is this: if, for example, a white man and a black man are charged with the identical drug-related crime, the black man is far more likely than the white man to go to jail. How much more likely? Here is an excerpt from a recent report by the nonprofit group Human Rights atch: ‘Nationwide, the rate of drug admissions to state prison for black men is thirteen times greater than the rate for white men. In ten states black men are sent to state prison on drug charges at rates that are 26 to 57 times greater than those of white men in the same state. In Ilinois, for example, the state with the highest rate of black male drug offender admissions to prison, a black man is 57 times more likey to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man”.

And I've heard statistics like this before. How two neighborhoods that in all other ways are equal, the black neighborhood will be considered to be more blighted by both blacks and whites than the white neighborhood.

Barack Obama reminds me so much of the character played by Sidney Portier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where the main character was so completely perfect in every way possible except that he was of the wrong race.

Obviously, Barack Obama is not perfect in every way. His main flaw is his inexperience at the national level, but he is such a completely skilled politician. His views are relevant, his speeches have depth that comes from serious thought, and are inspirationally delivered. And the conditions are absolutely perfect for a Democrat to win the presidency.

But John McCain continues to poll close to Obama, and its because too many people are not paying enough attention and as result, thin slicing are leading them to make, in my view, the completely wrong choice. They are letting negative stereotypes get in the way, and it doesn't help when there are so many ridiculous e-mails floating around playing on those fears...

So, most people feel that America has largely moved beyond racisim, and its true, in our conscious lives, very few of us believe that one race is superior in any way to another. Our laws, after years of struggle, finally reflect that. But we are still a country dealing with racism in very deep and significant ways, and the signs of this are all around us.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Work on Something You Love and Use

I loved, loved, loved this post. Please click on it.

If you do, don't be confused. I know this blog looks 100% identical to mine, but I promise it's not mine. I copied it wholesale. I know that's bad. I even copy much of its style, although my topics tend to be much different than his. Although he is much more popular (obviously), and much smarter. Steve Yegge's blog is the reason mine even exists.

And here are his two posts about blogging, just for fun:
This one defends Steve Yegge's use of really long blogs, really they are essays.
And this one on why you should write blogs.

So, back to the first one...

His blog is all about why business requirements suck. That is a major hook for me. I spent ten long years at a defense contractor house where a lot of paper was wasted on really long requirements documents, test documents, design documents, spec after spec after spec. But coming out of school in 1996, the software industry was still really young. So much innovation in software was still to come, and we had this really screwed up vision of how software should be developed:

Here's how the text books said it should be written:

1) Spend a ton of time up front coming up with customer requirements.
2) Parse out of those a whole long list of System Requirements, each bulleted sentences with the mandatory "shall" in the sentence.
3) Break those up in to an equally long list of hardware requirements and software requirements.
4) From these requirements, write really, really thick hardware/software design documents, interface documents and test documents.
5) From there, you can finally begin coding and testing and integrating and delivering.

Really, I think they were trying to dumb down software so much, that any fool could do it. Worthwhile goal I guess, but...

The reality went more like this:

1), 2), 3) happens as planned, but the schedules are long and panic has not set in yet.

Schedule tightens, rush the design documents...
Schedule tightens even more, rush the software, oh wait, forget the requirements (because most of them were screwed up anyway) and the design (unreadable anyway), just get something out there before the government cuts all funding...

My second project was a complete and utter failure. We actually didn't deliver anything, we over-engineered it trying to implement every last thing the customer wanted instead of trying to do something that could actually work, and ended up with nothing in the end. Finally, the government pulled it and gave it to a conglomeration of Silicon Valley companies...

At any rate, having said all of that, General Dynamics is a really good company, but working in defense is a tough environment. You have one customer, the government, and that customer is prone to making all kinds of mistakes and stupid demands, and half the time doesn't even know what it wants.

So with that in mind, read Stevey's rantings about customer focused groups:

What really happens is this: the focus group asks a bunch of questions; the customers have no frigging clue what they want, and they say contradictory things and change the subject all the time, and the focus group argues a lot about what the customers really meant. Then the product team says "we can't build this, not on our budget", and a negotiation process happens during which the product mutates in various unpleasant ways. Then, assuming the project doesn't fail, they show a demo to the original customers, who say: "This is utterly lame. Yuck!" Heck, even if you build exactly what the customer asked for, they'll say: "uh, yeah, I asked for that, but now that I see it, I clearly wanted something else."

So imagine how screwed up things get when that customer is the government. Yeah, exactly, that's why government contractors have a really tough, tough job.

His solution to requirements:


That's the Golden Rule of Building Stuff. If you're planning to build something for someone else, let someone else build it.

And forget about complicated requirements and documents, try this instead:

Ideally the product you're building for yourself should be simple to describe, so that other people can quickly evaluate whether they, too, want this thing. It's often called the "elevator pitch", because you should be able to describe the product in the time between when the cable snaps and the elevator hits the ground. "

And the killer quote for me, the best one in the blog:

If you don't already know exactly what to build, then you're in the wrong business. At the very least, you should hire someone who does know. Don't gather business requirements: hire domain experts.

If you can't think of anything in your company's "space" that you personally would use, then you should think seriously about (a) changing your company's direction, or (b) finding another company. This is true no matter what level you're at. You should be working on something you love, or failing that, at least working on something that you know really well.

And this is exactly why it was such a good idea for me to leave General Dynamics, it was a bad fit really from the get go, and the fit got worse and worse as time went on.

I worked hard there, and I had my share of fun, but the whole military culture, the politics there, I was a very conservative Republican up until around 2003 when I slowly drifted toward a more pacifist politics... I had to get out.

Is PayPal the perfect fit for me? Probably not, but a much better one. At least I use the PayPal product. When would I seriously ever use software programmable radios, really or the Land Warrior system. In fact, I love one feature of PayPal, and I wish I could use it more, but too many of you don't understand the power of PayPal and so are either complete non-users or barely use it only when you have to to shop on eBay. I need your buy in because I would love to send and receive money from and with you.

And that is the killer app for me. I hate carrying cash. I hardly ever have any. I hate checks even worse. I love credit cards and I carry those with me everywhere. But say I owe you money, are you really going to accept my card?

But why can't I say, ok, I owe you $10, as soon as I get home, you'll have it in your PayPal account. I have done this. We do it all that time at work when me and my colleagues go to lunch. One person pays, everyone else pays her back via PayPal. No separate checks, please, too much hassle.

And its free. This peer to peer money transfer, all virtual cash. All sitting in a PayPal money market fund earning 3-4% interest. Easily transferable to your bank account, or useable to do on-line purchases, or if you have the debit card, easy to do off-line purchases as well...

Anyway, just a little PayPal evangelizing. But it is really nice to be working on something that I actually use.

And one more idea from the article I love. Its often said to those who have this great new idea that wait, its already been done, too late and too bad for you. Well this quote seems so right to me:

The easiest way to build a product that kicks ass is to start with someone else's great idea (camcorders, for instance), and take stuff away.

In any event, originality is overrated. Coming up with something completely original isn't just hard to do: it's also hard to sell, because investors (and possibly customers) will need to be educated on what this new thing is and why people would want it. And when it comes to buying stuff, nobody likes to be educated. If the product isn't immediately obvious, investors and customers will pass it up.

It's easy to come up with new product ideas if you start with the understanding that everything sucks. There are no completely solved problems. Just because someone appears to be dominating a market with an "ideal" offering doesn't mean you can't take market share from them by building a better one. Everything can stand improvement. Just think about what you'd change if you were doing it for yourself, and everything should start falling into place.

If nothing else, building things for yourself is more fun, so you're successful regardless of what happens. But it also has great product-survival characteristics, because people can't bluff you into making something lame.

So, its best to work on something that isn't lame, something you love. And one final thing about working at PayPal. I see my fair share Obama bumper stickers in my PayPal parking lot, way more than I can imagine I would see at General Dynamics, and no McCain bumber stickers. So using this very unscientific metric, I would say that defense contractors as a whole attract a whole lot more Republicans and far fewer Democrats than a dot com company.

Another reason I'm glad I switched.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Presidential Campaign: Tax Policy and Health Care

I promised to write the wildly ambitious post about the serious issues of the campaign: the economy, health care, energy, the Iraq War, terrorism. But that, I'm sorry to say, is way beyond me... There is a ton of information out there about these topics already written by folks a ton smarter than me. The problem is that I worry that most of you do not access that information, and really neither do I. Much of the really substantive stuff is highly technical and hard to find and parse through...

But the information is becoming more and more readily available. During my daily treks to the gym, I am blessed with my ipod where I can listen to NPR podcasts, and some of them are mind-blowingly informative.

It's really cool. How NPR works at least for the really good shows likeDiane Rehm Show and Fresh Air (these are the two shows I podcast I listen to almost religiously), is that while the presidential candidates are blowing smoke about certain issues... (The ridiculous debate between McCain and Obama about energy right now makes me want to puke, seriously)..., NPR at the same exact time has a show with leading experts in these same areas having very intelligent discussions...

I used to be a big AM talk radio junky actually, but I hardly go there anymore. Once you hear the good stuff, AM radio just seems like a bunch of nonsense, and largely it is.

Admittedly, NPR has a slight bias left, but in my view this is the Republican party's fault. They made a decision starting in the late 1980's with Rush Limbaugh (I still remember the time I listened to Limbaugh for the first time, an how thrilled I was to hear somebody validate my Reagan religion) to label the main stream media as elitist liberals. As a result of this, their main source of news and information, e.g. Fox News, AM talk radio, is filled with shrill fluff mainly mixed in with some good points, but only enough good points to make just enough sense to folks to convince them of the truth of all the other distortions and narrow views of the issues.

I've already talked about this before, but really NPR is truly a neutral news source, they do get really smart experts from all sides of the political spectrum (yes there are really smart folks in both parties). But when the large segments of the Republican party labels NPR as elitist leftists, it really places that part largely on the fringes of the political spectrum. And the fringe is almost always the wrong place to be...

Ok, enough of my introduction. I spent way too much time on the following, but it's a transciption of an interview I heard, you can listen to it here for yourself.

I actually really enjoyed transcribing this, and there have been other podcasts I've heard on energy, a whole ton on the war, some very interesting ones describing the downfall of the conservative movement, another I only saw the title of from some smart young republicans who want to reinvent the party (and the party is in desperate need of reinvention), and a few on health care. Maybe I'll transcribe some of those as well.

But this one is about tax policy mainly and also health care of both presidential candidates. In the podcast, Terry Gross interviews the head economic advisors for both campaigns and the finishes off with a conversation with a tax policy expert, Leonard Burman of the Urban Institute and a Director of the Tax Policy Center.

The interviews with the campaign advisers were actually pretty worthless. Leonard Burman's interview was astonishingly interesting, so I transcribed that portion only. These are mostly Burman's words, paraphrased and directly quoted. I did try to inject some organization to it for clarity (my inserts are capitalized):

No one, not even those inside the campaigns know completely what each candidate's tax proposals are.

McCain has failed to specify what he's going to do with people in the non-group health insurance markets, those people who are buying heal

Obama has failed to specify exact subsidy schedules... how much subsidies at what income levels...

Bush's tax cuts are scheduled to expire in 2010.

McCain: Will extend all of President Bush's tax cuts and adds additional cuts for businesses, and will cut the estate tax somewhat.

Omama: Will extend most of Bush's tax cuts. Raise taxes on high income people, returning their tax levels to what they were on 2001. Bunch of tax cuts targeted for low and middle income people.

Middle 20% under Senator McCain get a $1400 tax cut, Obama, $2100 tax cut in 2012.
Bottom 20% (<$19000/year) McCain $100, Obama almost $700.

Obama: big cut at the bottom and a big increase at the top.
McCain: tiny cut at the bottom and huge cuts at the top.

Obama's plan: $2.8 trillion tax cuts over the next ten years.
McCain's plan: $4.2 trillion tax cuts over the next ten years.

Debt ramifications: With interest added in:
McCain's plan will increase debt by $5 trillion
Obama's plan will increase debt $3.4 trillion

AMT (The Alternative Minimun Tax):
Obama has been silent. Assumption is that he will continue the actions of the last 4 to 5 years. Patched the AMT - raised the exempt amount of income every year to keep millions of Americans from becoming subject to the tax... Increase it for inflation every year... Obama has not been specific, but they have not objected to this characterization.

McCain: Extend the AMT patch, but increase it over time to drop the number of people affected. Talked repeatedly about repealing the AMT, which would result in $400 billion in lost tax revenues.

Tazes of earnings on stock is at 15%. High tax bracket will put your income tax much higher than this.

Dividends: Money paid to shareholders of companies.

McCain: Leave the rate at 15%
Obama: Raise the rate to 25% or so and leave it there permanently.

His book: The Labrynth of Capital Gains Tax Policy.

Almost a religious crusade regarding captital gains tax:
Some think cutting capital gains is absolutely essential to economic growth.
Others believe a low capital gains tax is inherently evil because the benefits go almost all to high income people.

His view: in the middle. Cutting the rate produces some good outcomes and some bad ones.

- Encourages some new investment that would not occur otherwise. Gives people an incentive to hold onto things longer than they otherwise would...

Bad thing about it: Huge incentive for people to make income look like capital gains. If you are a high income person and make $1 million dollars, it taxes at a 35% rate, you can save $200k in taxes to make that million dollars look like capital gains. A whole industry exists to devise schemes to make regular income look like capital gains... Very wasteful. A lot of talent putting a lot of work of little social value... Also the tax shelters themselves often involve really dubious investments.

Neither one of them would eliminate the tax altogether.
2010, it dissapears.
2011, it comes back.
If you have a rich relative, 2010 is the for them to die.
McCain: Has been a long standing critic of eliminating the estate tax. His plan would be to keep it but at a very low level. Would not apply until your estate reaches $5 million. Only about 4000 descendants would be subject to in 2009, and the rate would be 15% same as capital gains.

Obama would set the level at a $3.5 million exemption, but taxed at a 45% tax rate...

For couples, $10million exemption for McCain, $7million exemption for Obama.

Burman's opinion is that the estate tax is an important part of the overall tax system. Its the most progressive tax that there is. Only applies to very wealthy individuals, only applies after they're dead when they don't need the money anymore.

Reduces the incentive to engage in tax shelters. Its a back stop to the income tax. If you manage to avoid taxes all of your life, your still going to pay it in the estate tax.

To roll it back dramatically, or eliminating it altogether, you encourage a lot of ineficient tax sheltering activity.

Both agree that the tax subsidies for health care should be targeted more at low and middle income people than what they are right now.

Current system: huge tax subsidy for getting health insurance, but it's in the form of an exclusion of income. If your employer provides you with health insurance, the value of the insurance is not included in the value of your income. You save in income, social security, and medicare taxes. That's worth the most to higher income people. The higher your tax bracket is, the more benefit you get... Its an upside down subsidy. The people who need it the most, get next to nothing from the current system.

McCain will replace the current system with a tax credit. $2500 for a single policy or $5000 for family coverage. It would be refundable, you would get the tax credit even if you had no tax liability. Low income people would get a substantial benefit. You would get the subsidy even if your employer doesn't offer insurance.

A lot of people complain that the credits are too small for low income of people to be able to afford insurance, but this is a big improvement over current law.

The tax credit doesn't depend on how much you actually spend on insurance, which means there's a built in incentive to get cheaper insurance... A lot of people think that generous insurance encourages people to spend too much on health care because it doesn't cost anything, everything's covered by insurance... A tax credit that's fixed in dollar terms, you would have an incentive to shop around for a cheap policy.

Drawback of this proposal: A lot of people would end up in this individual market. A lot of employers would stop providing insurance because individuals can get it themselves. If you're young and healthy you can get a really good deal on insurance, but if you have serious health problems, you might have a hard time finding affordable insurance.

McCain has a proposal to cover people with serious health problems, but he's given no specifics on how that works. Burman's analysis suggests that if that high risk pool is not very comprehensive, McCain's proposal would not end up covering that many more people than the current plan. A lot of people would get insurance in the individual non-group market, but a lot of people would also lose insurance through their employers.

Obama's plan: Also proposing refundable tax credits that would benefit low and middle income households. They could get insurance in a new health insurance exchange that he would create. A pool of insurance plans that would be available to anybody who buys insurance using these tax credits. Credits would be available to anybody with incomes up to about 4x the poverty level => roughly $80k for a family of four.

Very large subsidies are provided for people below the poverty line, then they would decline as income increased.

Mandate for covering children. Required by law to cover children with insurance. Expand the public program that provides insurance for children, S-CHIP (State Children Health Insurance Program), expand it to children with family incomes up to 3X the poverty level. Expand the Medicaid program for very low income people.

Mandate for employers to provide insurance: Pay or Play. If an employer did not provide insurance, they would have to pay a payroll tax, they assumed it would be about 6%, no details yet offered from the campaign.

Under the assumptions of his analsyis: Obama's plan will cover all kids and most adults, but wouldn't come close to reaching universal coverage. Still be about 30 million adults in 2018 who didn't have health insurance coverage.

Important details that they didn't know about. They had to make stuff up... Making the plans better to cover more people would also cost more money.

Senator McCains plan: adds up to $1.3 trillion dollars over the next 10 years.
Obama's plan would add up to $1.6 trillion over the next 10 years.

A lot of money considering they had $3-4 trillion dollars in tax cuts already.

Pay or Play plan would exempt small employers, not clearly defined, assumed to be employers with fewer than 10 employees.

McCain strength: intends to spur economic growth. Best feature of his plan: Plans to cut corporate tax rate. We have the second highest corporate tax rate in the developed world at 35%, encourages a lot of bad behavior. Keeps income oversees, encourages a lot of tax sheltering activity. We have a high tax rate, but we don't collect a lot of tax revenue from the tax because of the tax sheltering.

Preference would have been to include many more loophole closers at the same time as it cut the tax rate, but its a good idea to cut the corporate tax rate.

Obama's strengths:
One of the big issues over the last couple decades is that high income people have taking home almost all of the economic gains. The economy has grown dramatically, but most of those gains have been going to the people at the top.

By one measure, the richest 1% of Americans now earn something like 16% of the overall income of the United State. Highest level since the eve of the Great Depression.

It is a legitimate issue about whether we should be doing something to share the economic gains more equally.

At the same time as the economic distribution has been getting more skewed, that high income people have been taking home a larger and larger share, we've been cutting taxes on those very high income people and not been doing much for those in the middle. His proposals are aimed at providing help for low and middle income people so they can share more in those economic gains...

Both plans will increase the deficit by a lot. The law of holes is being violated: Both will dig the hole a lot deeper.

Just the non-health care part of their plans will add between 3.5 to 5 trillion dollars to the national debt in the next ten years. Well, we're rich countrym so we can afford it...

But, we're heading into what's going to be a really challenging period for us... The baby boomers are starting to retire. They are going to be putting unprecedented demands on the government. We're going to be needing more revenues not less.

We've got to figure out what we're going to do about Medicare and Social Security which so far nobody has been able to do.

The best thing we can do for our kids, if we can't fix those programs would be at least not to saddle them with a huge amount of additional debt, so they won't have to pay back our borrowing with interest at the same time they are trying to also pay for our social security and health care.

He worries in Obama's plan he has all of these special targeted breaks. One provision that would exempt senior citizens earning under $50,000 from income tax.

Right now, most senior citizens don't pay tax. The ones that are making 30, 40, or 50 thousand dollars are doing relatively well, they have income from pensions and other assets that make them subject to a little bit of tax. We've made these huge promises to seniors we have no way of paying for, and now we're saying that almost all seniors won't have to pay any income tax either.

We might decide that's a bad idea 5 or 10 years down the road, and if we set this precedent, it would be hard to reverse that.

National Debt that we have:

McCain at times in the past has been very responsible. He was a deficit hawk, voted against Bush's tax cuts, the things he would now make permanent.

In a campaign, there's a lot of pressure on the candidates to just make people happy, which is proposing tax cuts and proposing new spending programs to do stuff for people.

Recognizing fiscal reality has been determined to be a losing strategy for someone who wants to be president. Berman would like to have a president who would respect the public's intelligence, we can't do everything, we can't cut taxes and increase spending and if I'm going to tell you I'm going to pass huge tax cuts, but I'm going to pay for it by cutting spending, I'm going to be very specific about what I'm going to cut and how I'm going to make that happen.

And how I'm going to be succesful, when every president before has talked about getting the government more efficient, getting rid of agriculture subsidies, and has a really hard time getting those things through Congress...

McCain would like to cut spending a lot, but he has to deal with Congress...

Would be a really good idea to get rid of all of the agriculture subsidies, but the Senate is a huge constituency for those, and its implausible that we'll eliminate them.

McCain wants to hold discretionary spending fixed, below the levels they are right now in real terms, but then it wouldn't even keep up with inflation, that means a lot of things people rely on from government won't happen anymore. Could be a good idea, but he hasn't raised any specifics about how he's going to do that.

Obama has talked about all these new spending programs: education, infrastructure, health care, but they also talk about cutting spending too... They want to make the government more efficient, save $50 billion dollars by making health care more efficient.

Sounds really optimistic to him...

Fiscal prudence ought to be a bi-partisan issue, we all have children. Policies over the last 10 years, and the policies of both candidates will saddle our children with thousands and thousands of dollars of additional debt that they will have to pay back.

Nobody should be happy about that.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama, The Nasty, Savvy Politician

I have a small section in my post about why I'm voting for Barack Obama that alludes to this, but by some very convincing accounts, Barack Obama is not another Jimmy Carter. In fact, he's not so much an idealist, but more of a political machine with razor sharp elbows. Which explains why he climbed the political ladder so quickly in Chicago, a place where politics is anything but clean.

Two of the most salient criticisms against Obama is that he's hard to define, hard to pin down, and that he hasn't accomplished a lot politically. He's always been an outsider, always been on the move, in his early days thanks to his vagabond parents, his moves were geographical, in his adult years, his moves have been political. But his vagabond nature has prohibited him from accomplishing a lot politically. He has some significant accomplishments, but not enough, probably, to warrant a presidential run or to explain his political successes alone.

Since he first started running for political office, he's been running for a new position about every three years. Never really sitting still to make his mark. David Brooks in a recent op ed talks about this problem here. In fact, in my opinion, David Brooks has been the conservative columnist whose criticisms of Obama have been the most accurate. Brooks has been both positive and negative about Obama, effectively capturing both sides of the coin. Another critical Obama article by Brooks is here.

Finally I linked this article in my previous Obama post already, but its worth linking it again. But this one provides an in depth history of how Obama rose quickly through the Chicago political machine an on to the presidential campaign.

Anyone who thinks Obama is a paper thin weeny does not know much about the ruthlessness of Chicago politics...

But the reality is that he has not had much of a chance to define himself, to establish himself politically around policy. I think that is a problem because we do not have much to go on to determine how effective he would be as president.

And these two problems really are significant and can be summarized here:

1) His stark ambition which is very much on par with Hillary's. If you read the article in the link above you'll find two events in his political history that are most disturbing at least to me:
a) To win the state senate seat, Obama challenged the petitions of his challengers and in doing so was able to remove all his challengers and ran unopposed.
b) In preparation for his US Senate run he re-alligned (gerrymandered) his district to get a constituency that included many of his rich and powerful supporters as well as the African American base.

And an over-arching theme in his ambitious rise to the top includes his willingness to work within the establishment, the political machine of Chicago, making connections with the powerful and rich (including the slumlord, Tony Rezko) all the while always running on the message of change. To me, I believe that if Obama were to win as President, his message of change will be seriously muted in office and will see a very moderate presidency, dependent as he will be on his other message of unity (which implies compromise).

2) His ambition leads to an even more serious flaw. He was always running for another election about every three years for different positions. He never really stuck around doing one thing for any length of time. As a result, his accomplishments are not deep.

As a result of 2) many people including me have no idea what kind of president he will actually become, admittedly its all complete speculation at this point, because his record is really pretty thin.

But here's an attempt to put a little positive spin on these facts, or at least an attempt to explain his appeal to many including me.

This rising star phenomenon is an asset, ironically, among the high tech community. This is an interesting Atlantic article detailing his appeal among the Silican valley scene.

And I guess this is partially why it makes him appealing to me. Although I'm not part of a Silicon Valley startup scene at all, its something I'm peripherally aware of and in awe of. Young 20 somethings stricking at rich and changing the world at Google and at Facebook is amazing. This is kind of the demographic that Barack Obama comes from. Largely, it explains his appeal among the young and his fear among the old.

So, Barack Obama is a risk for sure, largely because of his lack of experience, but in some ways he is a risk worth taking because of that same lack of experience. He's not a push over idealist in the mold of Jimmy Carter. I believe he's tough enough and incredibly smart enough to take on the toughest world leaders, but admittedly, I can't imagine Chicago is anything like taking on the likes of Russia's Putin and the like. I do think he's going to have a massive learning curve and will make some mistakes, perhaps some serious ones.

There have been a lot of energy emitted attempting to define Obama, trying to compare him with past presidents. He's been compared to Lincoln for his potential and his stature (tall and skinny) and his Illinois roots. He's been compared to Kennedy and even Reagan for his incredible charisma and political skill. He's been compared to Jimmy Carter for his thin resume, his idealism, his naivety. He's been compared Clinton and Kerry for his flip flopping and triangulations.

The reality is that Obama is such a completely new phenomenon, he defies comparisons. For me that's what makes him exciting, his possibility and potential. For others, its what makes him a serious risk. And I admit, he is a risk, a big risk.

However, I really believe his politics are incredibly modern and relevant. I still want to write about why the Democratic policies are more relevant in the 21st century age than the Republican party's. This is especially true with Obama at its head. That post is still to come.