Monday, December 21, 2009

A President shouldn't be too pretty ...

You may remember my description of the Tsongas/Tootsie effect. If not, you can go search for it on this blog. Obama is not suffering through that. Rather he seems to have a different problem I think I might call the attractive person effect (bear with me, I am making this up as I go). I was going to call this the romantic girl effect, but guys are just as vulnerable to the effect. I was going to call it romantic girl because I have been checking out online personals (the ones written by women), and many seem to be calling for a man who knows how a woman wants to be treated, and plaintively asking whether such a man still exists. The inference I draw from that is that the writer of the personal ad has not encountered too many men with this quality, at least not in reality (TV and romance novels tell a different story, I believe).

The thing is, when you see an attractive guy or girl, even if you are already involved with someone, you often attribute certain qualities to them, even if there is no particular evidence for that. So if attractive person you see does not immediately kiss someone else, you may think they might be available. I believe I have read that attractive people are assumed to be smart until proven otherwise (studies have shown) and I suspect attractive people would also be assumed to be nice. Particularly if you pair an attractive man with a woman looking for a man who knows how to treat a woman... wait, what I meant to say is if you pair an attractive politician with a needy voter, someone who hasn't had a compatible President for eight (long) years, and before that had a President who fooled around with ... conservative ideas (well what did you think I was going to say), well ... let's just say I think a lot of voters and pundits imbued Obama was their own ideas of who he should (and could) be.

I know I have mentioned at least once that during the campaign Politico ran an article about Obama's Law Review Presidency. While it did not say Obama favored conservatives over liberals then, it did have remarks from a conservative professor who said that Obama made suggestions even from the conservative point of view. I am not saying Obama is some sort of closet conservative, rather that he has always been aware that a black man is assumed to be liberal, and if he wants to work with conservatives must start the relationship making concessions. Of course that is unfair, but it reflects the reality of the US in 2009. And of course it has worked about as well as the stimulus. Despite concessions like a high percentage of tax cuts in the stimulus, putting a surge into Afghanistan and be willing to make major concessions into health care, Republicans have moved in (almost) lock step on every major piece of legislation and they continue to make accusations ("you lie") and insinuations. But Obama has given them no big lever, no way for the Republicans to say "aha, told you he was a Socialist".

But progressives are upset that Obama has not turned out to be the white kni-... black knight(?) .... savior(?)...well, that Obama has not turned out to be the advocate for the poor and downtrodden they thought he would be. I can understand that, I am a little surprised myself. I mean, I can understand being nice to the banks and Wall Street, our financial markets are part of what makes us a great country. At the same time, c'mon (I am tihnking of those Playstation commercials).

During the campaign, a liberal (or at least moderate) pundit raised the idea of the "magic negro". Conservative pundits like Rush Limbqaugh seized on the idea within hours of it have been broached, rendering it immediately off limits. Too bad, here was a good topic for discussion. Are we thinking Obama will fix all our problems? First black President and a Democrat to boot, he would have the opportunity to put everything right. I am fairly well convinced Obama thinks to himself, here I am, first black President and a Democrat to boot, if I don't tread carefully these white folks won't let another black man into the White House for 50 years.

I am willing to give Obama a lot of latitude on things, his policies, the stimulus, the economy, Afghanistan, healthcare and other things. Really, would Hillary (or McCain) have done any better? Hillary might well have been more confrontational than Obama has been. I suspect that does not mean she would have been successful, rather it is more likely she would have been called shrill and a bitch several times by now, and burned some bridges that Obama has so far left intact.

Make I am just projecting my wishes onto Obama, but I am waiting for his second term. By then, having not pushed as hard against the Republicans as he could have, Obama will have the luxury of not having to worry about being re-elected and he can start to do the things we thought(/feared?) the "magic negro" can use the opportunity to try to more agressive legislation for the poor and the environment.

And after his second term, in some time-span (ten, maybe twenty years), during a Democratic administration, Obama can be nominated to the Supreme Court.

Friday, December 18, 2009

personal stuff and air conditioning

When I was writing about the Mayor's marital situation, weighing heavily on my mind was my own situation. I don't believe I have written about this here, but my wife asked me for a divorce over four months ago (and we have been going through the process ever since). Any random divorce does not have anything to do with politics, except if I am getting one and also talking about a public official's marital state. Of course we are not allowed to talk about the Mayor's situation on pain of legal action. The public should not be allowed to bad things about a (this) politician's character, only the good things he wants you to know. Because even though any random male politician might lie to his wife, he would never lie to the public.

But now you could be wondering what caused my divorce. Did I lie to my wife? Do I lie to my blog readers? How can my blog readers ever trust me again, and after they have given me the best minutes of their days ... they need a minute ...

Well, my short answer is that my wife and I fell into a sort of passive aggressive communication trap, sorta like I go for days without posting here. And the short answer is all I am prepared to give here for now.

One of the spinoff effects of my situation was the unlikely prospect I might date again. My brother helped me move many of my possessions one weekend, and he commented that he thought I would need a car with air conditioning. This, I thought, was good cover for looking for a different car (no midlife crisis me).

My old Hyundai Accent was, perhaps, the very definition of a perfectly adequate car. Using an aftermarket device called a scan gauge, I was able to get 33 mpg overall over the life of the car. Since I got the scan gauge a few months after I bought the car, it might have been really 33.5 mpg or 34 with the toy.

But it did not have air conditioning (the better to save gas with) and in fact the fan blew warm air towards the passenger side during summer (maybe that was just my car, or maybe a design flaw). Plus, it was, you know, a Hyundai. Fine for me, but even the most enlightened, non-materialistic woman might think "a Hyundai?"

So I took the excuse to look for a different car. I looked online for TDI's, for recent vintage Cobalt XFE's, for stick shifts. I might have bought a Metro, if I could have found a three cylinder stick with air and less than a 150,000 miles. And I looked for the legendary hybrid stick shift, the Insight (generation one up until 2006) that got 60 mpg according to the EPA (some drivers get 99 mpg) and the line of Civic hybrids that had a stick up until the 2006 model year.

Of course, you can buy a used hybrid, although I think it is largely a seller's market. The CVT (continuous variable transmission) hybrids like the Prius, the new Insight and the Ford Escape (and most Civic hybrids) are smarter than the driver, shifting at optimal intervals to regenerate the battery and protect the environment from the driver (whom the intelligent car suspects is insincere about his professed concern for the environment, after all, he must have lied to his wife, otherwise why would she have ... excuse me, bit of a tangent). But with a manual transmission, the driver might be able to control some things that the car doesn't know about, like down shifting as you go up a hill or approach traffic.

So anyway I found and bought a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (manual transmission). It has air conditioning and is supposed to get good mileage, so it meets some minimum requirements of mine. Of course, a Civic is the uninspired choice of so many University and/or progressive types, so at least I will fit in.

But it is an interesting car to drive. Before I describe why, let me say a thing or two about driving a stick. When you want to slow down, you can either put in the clutch and coast (and perhaps brake) or you can let up on the gas while in gear and even downshift. On automatics that is the equivalent of shifting into the two or the one setting on your shifter. That is effective for slowing the car (essential if your brakes aren't working) but uses more gas and is hard on your engine. Part of what got me good mileage in the Accent was coasting up to stop lights and stop signs.

With the hybrid, I thought that when I was driving, and approached a traffic light or maybe just went downhill, I would put in the clutch, apply the brake and the battery would charge a bit as the car slowed to a stop. The whole regenerative braking thing. What I have discovered is that this hybrid is more sophisticated. If, when I want to slow down, I leave the clutch up (leave the car in gear), it will I believe disengage the gas motor on its own on the fly, engage the electric motor in charge mode and use the resistance of charging the electric motor batteries to slow the car. This has the effect of pushing the little gas mileage bar way up, by the way, I guess because the engine is either in neutral or perhaps even off. If the car is warmed up, as you slow to a stop still in gear, the car will go into "auto stop" mode and turn the engine off. We used to call that stalling out. But if I put the car into first in this auto stop mode (which is indicated by a little light on the dash board), it starts right up again. By the way, I have actually stalled the car as well. If you apply brake, while the car is in gear but your foot is off the gas, it charges the batteries more.

So this car wants me to do things I always thought were bad for stick shift cars, like using the motor to slow that car and leaving it a higher gear as you get to a traffic light. But so far, even with Pittsburgh's punishing hills, I am keeping the electric motor battery charged. I haven't programmed the scan gauge yet for the hybrid (I think there are some tricks to it to get accurate readings) so I don't have a feel for the actual gas mileage so far. And it is interesting that this car does not have much in the way of power, the electric assist merely makes a car with a tiny engine seem more like a car with an adequate engine. But damn if it isn't a hybrid. That's like air conditioning plus.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Skewed parallels

There are reasons why people compare Iraq and Afghanistan with Vietnam. The whole business of saying that Iraq and Afghanistan are different than Vietnam because one is a jungle is essentially the bureaucrat’s way of saying that the ordinary people are too stupid to understand these complicated situations.

Still, a lot of the parallels are inescapable. We went into all three countries for ideological reasons Yes, Al Qaeda had attacked us, but my memory of events in late 2001 is that the Taliban government knew trouble was coming and was grudgingly willing to help us by turning over Osama Bin Laden. I note that Bush never suggested that setting up democracy in Afghanistan would be an example to anyone.

Anyway, once we went into all three countries, we found that the civilian population might not like the ideology we opposed, but the local civilians quickly realized that first, we were just as or more brutal in our clumsy but oblivious way and second, that at least the Vietcong/Taliban/AL Qaeda are from their respective countries. So inevitably we end up supporting a local leader who tells us what we want to hear even as the local leader advances his own agenda. And because that agenda is not popular with at least some of the population, the local leader turns into a brutal dictator. The difference is, of course, that the guys we support are “democratic” dictators, not communist or Islamic extremist dictators.

Meanwhile, civilian casualties mount as ordinary people stubbornly refuse to become western style voters (of the sort Washington insiders have contempt for anyway). It becomes clear that except among some fringe factions that were oppressed before we came in (Montagnards, Kurds) that we are making no real progress. We may be killing Viet Cong, Taliban or Al Qaeda and even winning most or all of the battles. But the collateral damage we do and our ham-fisted efforts at helping people we don’t want to understand are the best recruiting posters in the world for our enemies. As is the insistence of some in Washington on making the case for American exceptionalism.

As I understand it, American exceptionalsim is the notion that since we invented the best democracy in the world/history, we should and can do whatever we want where ever we want and everybody else should thank us for bombing them since it was obviously the right thing to do. I don’t believe there was American exceptionalism back in the Vietnam era, but only because we figured it was already understood.

We had and have smart leaders. As students of history they know all this and a lot more. They claim to be thinking about, to want ot learn form our past mistakes. But our own ideological rhetoric drives us to make weird and bad choices. We refuse to give our legal rights to human beings born outside our borders, yet we feel we can tell them what political system to live under (or we will kill them, although we might do that accidentally anyway). We did it in the 1960’s and we are still doing it. But there’s no parallel.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Jack Kelly’s column on Sunday was about words, how Obama does not sound bellicose enough to suit Kelly’s tastes. Frank Herbert today writes about consequences of actions, specifically the toll taken on those individuals (and their children) who are actually fighting the war in Afghanistan. Fewer than one percent of Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, for tour after tour. It is wrecking the military we have, and yet the vast majority of us are home, grousing about the price of gas and the Stillers if we are lucky, worrying about our jobs or healthcare if we are not (although we are still luckier than the troops).

I have a bumper sticker, it says “Support the Troops” and has the numerals “55” inside a green circle (in smaller letters below it says If you haven’t guessed, it is advocating that we support the troops by driving at fifty five miles per hour, coincidentally the speed limit on most of the highways I drive. I got it as a smart ass semi-subversive kind of thing, a sort of you can’t honk at me because I am blocking you, I am being patriotic thing. But after reading Herbert’s column, I am thinking that in fact we ought to be serious about making some sacrifice(s) as a nation for the troops, beyond allowing the government to borrow from the Chinese to pay for the war.

Jack Kelly actually had the gall to compare Obama negatively to George W Bush in terms of expressing resolve for fighting in Afghanistan. We have seen the actual limits and effects of George W Bush’s resolve. We largely failed to win in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but we did manage to wreck both countries (which granted were not in great shape to start with), squandered the goodwill of the rest of the world after 9/11 and threw away a trillion dollars. Even if you link only Obama and not Congress (both parties and their roles in shaping it) to the stimulus and the automaker bailout, even if you ignore the Wall Street bailout, even if you say the stimulus has failed, do we say we owe nothing to the soldiers still fighting on our behalf in Afghanistan and Iraq? Is it only a magnetic plastic ribbon we owe them? Could we find it in our hearts to slow down, to save oil (domestic and foreign) and save lives (our own) and just make sure we leave a little earlier? Especially (especially) if you just had to buy that pickup or SUV, by slowing down to 55 you save much more gas, percentagewise, than that environmentally conscious lawyer yuppie type in his or her Prius.

Or we could demand our Congress-persons support a draft, and we could all take the risk or (in the case of people my age, risk all our children). Or, if we were really serious, we could do both.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A thought...

Something that occurred to me: if you have oil or natural gas sitting in the ground and sun hitting the earth today or wind blowing, you can decide to use one for energy. If you take the oil/natural gas out of the ground and use it, you have power today. You can of course do the same thing with solar or wind. The thing is, if you burn the oil/gas, it is gone and can not be used tomorrow. The wind and solar, on the other hand ...

So maybe before we drill more oil/gas drills, we should max out our solar/wind capacity. Then, after that, we can judge how much more oil/gas we need.
I haven’t posted for a while, I know, and I do have a thing I want to say. But it will have to wait a bit longer, just because it will.

Meanwhile, they say consistency is a virtue, and if it is true then Jack Kelly is a most virtuous man. You always know what you will get with him, conservative clichés, and this week’s column does not disappoint. Kelly acknowledges that Obama is listening to his generals and sending more troops, but since Obama is clearly doing that only to provide himself some cover with real Americans, Kelly does us the favor of deciphering what Kelly says is the worst speech of Obama’s career (until Obama’s next speech). According to Kelly, the business of setting an end date is at best pandering to the left, and at worst helping an enemy that (although to be fair Kelly does not say this) Obama might secretly support. Certainly Obama has told the enemy that they just have to sit tight and wait and can take over in eighteen months. Kelly blasts Obama for not mentioning winning or victory, and in fact compares Obama to Presidents who showed resolve and backbone, like FDR after Pearl Harbor or George Bush after 9/11.

But maybe we should talk about Bush after 9/11. Then there was tough talk about getting Osama Bin Laden and facing the terrorist threat to the US head on. How’d that work out? We invade Afghanistan, but Bin Laden escaped US forces at a battle in a place called Tora Bora, evidently because we did not bring in enough troops to that battle. That decision was made at apparently a high level. Then we invaded Iraq, and seemed to largely forget about Afghanistan. We have been in Afghanistan for eight years, including nine months under Obama. The place is now Obama’s to mess up, but for the previous seven years George Bush was busy doing very little, certainly almost nothing to catch Bin Laden. US contractors were there and in Iraq, taking taxpayer money hand over fist. Yet when Obama mentions the billion dollars spent in those places fruitlessly, Kelly brings up the money spent on stimulus and saving the Auto industry and calls that spending a failure and a waste (I notice he doesn’t calling bailing out Wall Street a waste).

Plenty of other people have criticized Obama for sending more troops to Afghanistan, and for waiting to get out. Plenty of people have criticized Obama for announcing he is going to decide, based on conditions on the ground, about how many troops to remove in 18 months. I think that given Afghanistan's history, it is really difficult to say if there is a magic bullet or maybe a magic shovel for this current conflict. Even if there is, afterwords for at least a couple of generations tensions there would be high, ready to explode on little provocation, and in any event the country would be vulnerable to invasion for some time to come. Afghanistan is a complicated situation and no one should say they know *the* answer. And in particular I think injecting clichés into the dialogue like saying the President should talk tough is not helpful. Except perhaps to people who want to damage the President.