Politics and the PBS Effect

Bill Moyers had Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul on his program this week. The interviews reinforced my growing suspicion that they are the only Democrat or Republican candidates in this Presidential race. The others differ so little on policy that they’re becoming almost indistinguishable. Almost.

Even if most of the Democratic candidates won’t openly champion equal rights for gays, at least they’re not a threat. Paul excepted, any Republican candidate–Rudy included–would gladly pry up a two-by-four from the party platform and gay-bash the fuck out of me for some quick votes. The one thing that hasn’t changed is my disgust for the entity currently masquerading as the Republican Party.

I also can’t support any candidate who wants to keep us in an unjust and horribly executed war. This administration has deeply shamed us and our armed forces in the military arena even though we’re the only superpower in the world. Ideally we need to get troops out and bring everybody else in to create a real coalition and broker a diplomatic solution. My second choice would be a candidate with the anatomy to say “Let’s drop a few hundred thousand more troops on this, open up the special toys locker, and end it quickly” rather than leave our troops to burn in the spreading conflagration we ignited.

Biden had the best grasp of foreign policy on those rare occasions he wasn’t full foot in mouth. You think the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee might actually have a clue about foreign policy? Duh. I’m sorry he dropped out of the race since he might have raised the bar on the war debate in the run up to Super Tuesday. I hope he’ll still be in the running for Vice President. The Cheney Legacy makes me wonder which office actually has more power now anyway.

Other things have changed. Until recently I considered Hillary inevitable. Not in a bad way mind you, I think she’s smart and tough and wouldn’t make things worse. It wouldn’t hurt being the first President with a successful two-term ex-President lying in bed next to her for bouncing ideas around. Oh, and I have no fear that she’d be Bill’s puppet. Please.

She and Obama are effectively identical on issues for me. Maybe she’s a little more hawkish (doesn’t bother me) and he’s a little more inspiring (except for my instinctive distrust of smooth operators). Edwards might be a little more palatable on a few social issues but doesn’t really stand out in any other way. I’d be comfortable with any of them in office, just not terribly excited like I am for Nutter becoming mayor next week. Woohoo!

But something strange is happening. I visited a few sites that poll your position on issues and match you with the most compatible candidates. Hands down on both sites it was Kucinich by more than 10%:

I’m a little skeptical of the second one since I jumped there from a Kucinich site and couldn’t immediately determine its owner. Then again its results matched the first, more clearly non-partisan one pretty closely. Gravel tended to be second, then Obama. When I visited Gravel’s website, it played a clip that actually played up the perception he’s a little bit crazy. Something about that made my innards twitch and I don’t really consider him viable. Clinton appeared just above the first of the Republicans, Ron Paul.

I have a few problems with Ron Paul in particular and Libertarians in general. There’s this idea of tearing everything down to make everything better. It sounds good on the surface, but that kind of myopic utopianism scares me, conjuring up images from Larry Niven’s Cloak of Anarchy. Thing is, the more I see Ron Paul, the more I like him.

I don’t really agree with him on most things, but I do feel there’s both a brain and a heart to the man. He’d be a “do no Constitutional harm” president for our ailing republic. If he fails, I think he’d at least be a glorious failure to the American Experiment. Bland and safe, status quo for its own sake, mediocrity are things I cannot tolerate when my world is trending down.

Maybe Kucinich and Paul can say anything because they have no real hope of being elected, but that’s not the impression I’m getting as I dig a little deeper. I have to say that TiVo, podcasts, and the internet as a whole have raised my political awareness during this race far beyond any previous election. Being Between probably isn’t hurting my political awareness either.

The strange conclusion I’ve come to is that I’d vote first for Kucinich–and probably will if he’s still in the primary–then for Paul, and finally for any of the three generic Democratic front runners. Of those, right now it would be Obama to reinvigorate politics especially among the young, then Clinton for the reasons above, and finally Edwards because he’s not a Republican (Ron Paul excepted). I did vote for Katz over Street after all. Little good it did Philly.

What particularly infuriates me is how the media completely ignored my two front-runners from their Iowa Caucus coverage. (The whole caucus “process” is a maddening circus in the same tradition as the Electoral College.) Last night I checked the usual media outlets to see how the two underdogs did, and I found myself wondering if they’d dropped out of the race before Iowa. In fact, Paul got a 10% showing–amazing considering the media blackout he and Kucinich both suffer. Kucinich predictably didn’t do well and caught heat from his own supporters because he made a great recommendation going into the caucus. I hate people.

Here’s the story. The caucus process weeds out candidates that don’t get a certain percent of votes in a balloting cycle. Kucinich said that if he got bumped (he did), then he wanted his supporters to vote for Obama in the next round. That makes perfect sense. If he’s out of the race because of the convoluted rules of caucusing, then having a plan B is smart. His supporters, not nearly as smart as he, thought he was bowing out and recommending Obama instead of him beyond the Iowa caucus. Idiots! Including Michael Moore apparently. Tsk, tsk.

Thanks to the PBS Effect, I’m exceptionally informed and annoyed on this and a bunch of other issues. At least Jon Stewart made me laugh occasionally. Watching The News Hour, Now, and The Journal are like following Kassandra’s blog during the Trojan War.

Do you prefer seeing the train coming or having it clobber you from behind?

Pandora’s Beat Box

Pandora drives another nail into the coffin of the traditional (can we now say legacy) music industry. Instead of a broadcast model, you create “stations” by choosing one or more seed songs. Then Pandora finds similar songs based on a complex categorization system [The Music Genome Project].

I never really listened to regular radio for lots of reasons: Advertising, blathering DJs, no “skip” button to bypass the 90% crappy programming. I’d listen to NPR in the car sometimes, but thankfully they podcast everything now. My brief flirtation with iPod radio transmitters is also thankfully moot with MusicLink and the aux port in the Civic. Yes, I use two iPods in my car at once. That’s another story though.

Internet radio has some strong benefits over regular broadcast: Tailored content, less talking, no advertising, full remote control functions, being able to see previously played songs for follow-up. We’ll see if it survives the changes to the royalties fee structure though. Thing is, I’d still skip lots of songs. The categories are still too broad, assuming I even know what they mean. Anybody have a good taxonomy that explains house, tribal, and all those other exotic species? Problem solved with Pandora.

Pandora’s genius is the correct man-machine division of labor. Experts (humans) classify songs across hundreds of dimensions, genes in their speak. They do what humans do best, recognize complex patterns and subtle traits in analog. Then machines do what they do best: Suggest music by crunching those hundreds of genes across millions of songs to find similarities that a listener might not even perceive. Human experts classify individual songs and machines crunch the entire database. Perfect.

After seeding the station, Pandora gathers listener feedback (thumbs up/down on suggestions) to fine-tune each station; I skip fewer and fewer songs. The adaptive icing on the cake. This is all great for me, but what’s the business incentive here?

This is what radio-industry-asaurus doesn’t get: I find new music that I like, stuff I’d absolutely never even look at otherwise, and buy it. My Touch goes places where internet access is limited or non-existent. Will that change if/when ubiquitous internet access becomes available? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for iPods and paperback books to become obsolete anytime soon.

Like most iTunes users, my purchases dropped off after an initial feeding frenzy. I hunted down all those albums from the vinyl/tape days that I couldn’t find on disc and the singles from otherwise worthless albums. Pandora does what you’d expect from a smart Web 2.0 application: It lets you click on songs and buy them directly from Amazon (a little clunky) or iTunes (smooth as expected). You can also bookmark the song or the artist for later consideration. Pandora makes my life easier with useful personalization and helps pay the bills with some web services smarts.

I came across another music site, iLike, on Facebook. Comparing music with friends doesn’t lead to new music purchases though. Reading a Facebook page or the “What’s New” iTunes emails doesn’t entice me to buy. Actually hearing music does. I’ll keep using iLike because it provides concert and album release announcements for artists I’ve bookmarked, something Pandora doesn’t do.

Now I will admit to something embarrassing. My Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) station suggested a Britney Spears song, Heaven on Earth. And I really like it. And I bought it. I would never have bought anything like this without Pandora. Oh joy, another reason to avoid letting friends scroll through my Touch’s music library.

Unlike Pandora’s Lunchbox (love the name, the food not so much), this Pandora lives up to its mythic namesake. Try it and let me know what you think.

Happy New Hate Speech

It didn’t take Pope Benedict 24 hours to rachet up the hate speech.  Apparently gay marriage threatens world peace.  Either Benny remembers his Hitler Youth lessons perfectly or Karl Rove’s new office is in the Vatican.  Frankly I think I’m more of a danger to world peace single.  So I charge all my friends to (1) find me a husband and (2) push for gay marriage in 2008.  Otherwise I just might have enough time on my hands to finish that death ray.

Portal to Insomnia

Stupid me, arriving early for The Golden Compass (very good, go see it, more later). A half hour to burn and a Best Buy within 500 feet means two new time wasters came home with me: The Shivering Isles and Valve’s The Orange Box. TOB wouldn’t normally show up on my radar, but the gamer blogs/podcasts have been raving about it–especially Portal.

Oh Valve, thank you. Portal lives up to the hype. Definitely first person, more puzzler than shooter, in a setting that feels like a near-future take on Paranoia. There’s a special place in my heart for insane computers, dangerous technology, and dark humor. Expect inventive game play, smooth graphics, great visual style, and merciful brevity. That brevity feels as deliberate as a filmmaker proving a concept with a short film before committing to a full feature. My only real complaint is how the frequent loading definitely broke immersion due to sound glitches and the literal text “Loading”. Tsk, tsk. Hopefully that won’t be the case with Half Life 2.

This is a must-play for PC gamers because of the fresh concept, well-realized setting, and replay value. I cackled, gasped, cursed, and back-talked my way through Portal in one sitting of about six or seven hours. Of course that means it’s 5:30 am. Ugh. So much for getting back into a more work-friendly sleep/wake cycle. More on Portal and other things time-wasting after some shut-eye.

My BlackBerry Knows Where I Am

I’m in NYC to see people and catch Suzanne Vega later tonight.  And my BlackBerry knows it thanks to “My Location” on Google Maps.

No big deal in a GPS world, right?  I don’t have GPS though.  Google’s doing some kind of rough triangulation based on cell phone towers which so far has been much more accurate than the 1.7 km disclaimer.  Urbanites faring better is no surprise given the density of towers here and in Philly.  Not sure what extras Google has in store, but it’s free and it’s geeky-cool and gives me Google Maps (and traffic and search) with less Suretyping–and that’s a Good Thing.

I looked at GPS units for road trips during my time between but they’re still bulky and/or expensive.   Will “My Location” be enough?  The price sure is right. Especially since I still haven’t taken one road trip into unknown territory in my two months off.

Android starting to make more sense to you last few Luddites out there?  Google gets phones.  They are making me get phones, and I HATE phones.  More precisely, I get all my Google stuff on my phone, my Touch, my boxes, and even at kiosks with a well-scaled experience.

My iPhoned friends should particularly rejoice given the obvious synergy between this feature and their interface.  First time since my Touch shacked up with my BlackBerry that it’s been jealous of its older brother.

From My Blackberry Pearl

Sometimes the Good Guys Win

Nova recounts the latest defeat of gussied-up creation science in Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial. This fantastic two hour special explores the legal and scientific aspects of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. It’s also fantastic primer on the underlying question, “What is science?”

Born and raised here, I know “Mississippi in the middle” describes Pennsylvania all too well. A town outside of the very Republican state capital, Harrisburg, looked like a favorable battlefield for the religious fundamentalists. Having a Bush-appointed conservative federal judge presiding should have tipped the scales even more. (In retrospect a jury trial might have been worse if my personal experience with juries is any indication.) The fundamentalists were emboldened to fight the next round of the culture wars by Republican victories and Bush’s “mandate” (by barely getting reelected) in 2004. The odds didn’t look good.

The program shows how smart, dedicated people not only won this lopsided battle but trounced their opponents. Inspiring, even for a cynic like me! I was particularly struck by how articulate and even funny the plaintiffs’ lawyers and experts were. Nova uses a series of reenactments taken word for word from the transcripts since no filming was allowed during the trial. Don’t worry; they did a good job. This won’t feel like an unseemly episode of A Current Affair.

I particularly enjoyed the part where Barbara Forrest is testifying about how she compared versions of the Intelligent Design (ID) textbook Of Pandas and People before and after the Supreme Court ruling in 1987 that threw creation science out on its ear. Somebody makes a quip about the glaring search/eplace error “cdesign proponentsists” being a transitional form (i.e., missing link) between “creationist” and “design proponent”. I appreciated it on so many levels–as a science geek, a verbal fencer, and even as a Document Management expert!

My only gripe with the program is how it ends with the notion that science and religion can coexist. That’s just wishful thinking in a world filled with religious fundamentalists. Here’s why: Science and religion are trying to answer some of the same questions about natural phenomena like the origin of man, the Earth, and everything. They go about it in very different ways:

  • Science uses processes for generating, testing, and refining assertions about the natural world based on experimentally validated facts. This continuous refinement means science gets more accurate over time as more facts accumulate and theories evolve to better fit the facts. Time is on science’s side.
  • Fundamentalists believe their sacred texts are the infallible words of some deity, so their assertions about natural phenomena must all be absolutely true even though they were penned hundreds or thousands of years ago. Time works against religion because new facts accumulate over time that may challenge or contradict those infallible assertions.

Time has indeed favored science, and no burning bush or tablets of errata have appeared to reconcile any of those infallible sacred texts with the growing body of scientific knowledge. It’s not really a fair fight, and some religions have come to terms with that fact.

The Catholic Church doesn’t only acknowledge the Earth goes around the Sun now, the Catholic Church accepts the theory of evolution. These aren’t liberal secular humanists, they’re Catholics. They’re also pragmatists. It’s a losing battle, so why fight anymore and take more shots to the head? The Baha’i faith even builds an “until proven wrong” clause into their sacred texts to avoid conflict altogether. It’s certainly easier for science and religion to coexist peacefully when religion pleads no contest.

However, the United States is a country with a swelling fundamentalist Christian population at war with anybody believing differently. It’s not just the atheists or radical fundamentalist Islamics; in Dover they even attacked other Christians for not being Christian enough. These people know science will inevitably tread on their infallible truths by just doing its job. They aren’t pacifists despite lip service to their pacifist lord and savior. They’re going to fight, and there are only two ways they can win:

  • Turn everybody into fundamentalist Christians so nobody questions their infallible truths.
  • Outlaw any activity, belief, or lack thereof that conflicts with their infallible truths.

Either we all drink the Kool Aid, or anybody who’s different becomes a second class citizen in the Theocratic States of America. Let’s be clear about how this started. It wasn’t scientists persecuting fundamentalists. Biochemists aren’t in their labs sequencing genomes to discredit Genesis. Authors aren’t penning Biology texts because they hate the Bible. It’s the fundamentalists that have the agenda and use back-door political maneuvering to sucker-punch well-supported science like evolution.

Dover didn’t end this, but we can learn from Dover. Take heart that sometimes the good guys win. Prepare for the next onslaught by the fundamentalists.

A Victory for Primates Everywhere!

Google Reader Is Amazing

As much as I love Safari as an RSS reader, my loyalties have shifted to Google Reader. Here’s why:

Read Anywhere — Google Reader works on any of my desktops and laptops. It works on my Blackberry Pearl. It not only works on my iPod Touch, it looks fabulous and is fun to flick. It works at an internet kiosk. Now I can tame the feeds any place/time I like. Hopefully that’ll mean fewer marathon catch-up sessions.

Flagging — With Safari, my bookmarks bar is overflowing with articles that either required more time to finish or needed some kind of follow-up. Now I can flag them just like I would an email message. This is a feature I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

Sharing — I can mark articles and share them through a web page/RSS feed. This is so much easier than blogging about each item, especially things I just want to share without additional comments. [My Shared Google Reader, also available in the nav bar under About Me]

There are still some web comic feeds I’ll leave in Safari since they’ll be difficult to manage on mobile devices. My first glance at Mail.app’s new RSS capabilities didn’t impress, but it’s worth a second look now that Google Reader’s exposed the utility of mail-like features with feeds.

It’s got me thinking about pointing my acm.org email address back to GMail to explore for synergies between various Google apps. It’s getting harder to resist the siren call of a company that does smart things like this–but even if they make their money from ads? Hmmmm.