Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Why I Will Be Voting for Barack Obama

Let me preface this with two statements: first, the reason this post is so well-written is because most of it is written by a friend who for various reasons wishes to remain anonymous. Secondly, if in the unfortunate event of the November being Clinton v. McCain, then yes, I will vote for Clinton. As it should be clear to anyone who has attempted to make the Obama v. Clinton decision based on policy alone, the two candidates simply don't differ substantially on the issues, forcing us to make our decision based on other reasons (see the end of this post for a better-phrased rendition of this point).

Practical Reasons Why Barack Obama Should Be the Next President of the United States, and Hillary Clinton Should Not

Much of the media coverage surrounding Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has focused on the Illinois senator's theme of "change." While Senator Obama downplays the obvious and awkward race/gender implications, he has deliberately framed the contest as a generational conflict. While a conspiracy to prematurely put the Baby Boomers out to pasture is indeed seductive, it does not earn my vote. Irritating as it may be, there must be substance. So, here are my practical reasons why Barack Obama should be the next president of the United States:

1. "He Has No Experience. Nobody Knows This Guy." That's the Point.

Senator Clinton's most durable and effective jab against Obama's potential as President is that he just does not have the necessary political resume to assume the highest political office in the land. After all, he's only a first-term senator (more on that later). To Obama's supporters, this argument misses the point. They support him because he does not carry forty years of political obligation with him into the Oval Office. He has not spent the greater part of his adult life learning what can't be accomplished on Capitol Hill. The political climate in America is perhaps more polarized and vindictive than it has been since the late 1960s. Hillary Clinton can endure that climate. Barack Obama can change it. It is counterintuitive to argue that a politician whose entire public life is emblematic of the political polarization of a nation is somehow most qualified to unite it.

Perhaps equally importantly, he is not saddled with the cult of hatred that has burdened Hillary Clinton since 1992. Whatever Hillary Clinton would gain as president from her political "experience" would be negated by the fact that so many legislators and citizens would reflexively stonewall her purely by fault of what (they perceive) she is and what (they perceive) she stands for. Is anybody under the impression that another Clinton administration would not be the target of a new generation of Kenneth Starrs and Ralph Reeds? That we wouldn't all have to endure another round of Whitewater and similar absurdities? We would, and it would mean, once again, neglecting the real business of the nation.

2. Now, Let's Discuss Experience...

Hillary Clinton is neither an experienced politician nor an experienced administrator. She has won only two elections, and that only with a massive financial base, almost-universal name recognition and—of course—the strong and vigorous endorsement of an ex-president. The majority of her public life has been spent in the capacity of First Lady, first of Arkansas and then of the United States. Being in close proximity to power is far cry from wielding it, and Mrs. Clinton hopes that the voters will not realize that. She over-estimates and over-represents the breadth of her political experience. Her argument that Mr. Obama is either not electable or not an able politician ignores the fact that he more or less single-handedly built a political base rivaling hers in the past twelve years. He has won more elections than she has with fewer resources. His recent work as a ground-level inner-city community organizer gives him a much better perspective on the realities of race, class and, yes, gender, than does Clinton's work as a prominent corporate nearly attorney thirty years ago.

3. ...And Gender.

Among Hillary Clinton's most reliable supporters has been a demographic of baby-boomer women frustrated at what they perceive as entrenched patriarchy at the highest levels of national power. They lived through and led the women's liberation movements of the sixties and seventies. For them, a second Clinton administration has the potential to complete a feminist narrative that began with suffrage. The problem is the first Clinton administration. It is difficult to understand why a generation that has identified so strongly with the idea of feminine autonomy chooses to champion a woman who spent a quarter century supporting her husband's rise to power. And after her husband fulfilled his every ambition, he allowed her to use his political machine to achieve some of hers. A feminist triumph indeed. References to her long-ago legal career notwithstanding, the majority of Clinton's public life has been spent in the capacity of First Lady. Furthermore, unqualified feminist support for Hillary Clinton assumes that any woman, by virtue of her gender, will be a better advocate for women's issues than any man. If this is indeed why Clinton enjoys such strong support from women of her generation, it is a sad testimonial to the state of contemporary feminist thinking. Modern feminists should consider not only which candidate is most representative of their struggle, but which is most able to build the consensuses and piece together the coalitions necessary to continue real progress towards gender equality in America. Much of America has already decided—by no fault of her own—that Hillary Clinton is a dangerous and radical relic of the more bizarre elements of the women's liberation movement. Barack Obama does not have this image. By virtue of his strong and charismatic masculinity, he will be more able to successfully continue the work to which Senator Clinton's generation is committed.

4. P.S. - The Rest of the World.

No foreseeable political event could redeem America's standing in the world more than Barack Obama taking the oath of office as President of the United States. His election would represent a clean break from the face of America which has earned us such antipathy from enemies and allies alike. Consider his potential for international credibility: the biracial son of a Muslim African, raised in Indonesia, who was a vigorous opponent of the Iraq War from the beginning, could hardly be cast as the Ugly American. He would have a wealth of international political capital completely unavailable to Senators Clinton or McCain, largely because nobody could argue that he doesn't care. His insistence on meeting with problematic world leaders such as Chavez, Ahmadinejad & Co. challenges the dangerous and juvenile American myth that you can make progress with a nation by ignoring it. Furthermore, don't be concerned that a man so liberal will be perceived as a push-over. I doubt his administration will have trouble convincing anybody that a tall black man from inner-city Chicago is aggressive enough.

More than a few political reporters have noted that the two Senators have remarkably similar political platforms. Their observation is accurate. Quibbling on particulars of health care plans aside, there are few glaring political or ideological differences between the two politicians. In very general terms, therefore, it is a contest of both image and leadership. Senator Obama is a bold and capable leader. He is not encumbered by the political baggage or obligations of a quarter-century at the highest levels of American politics. And he represents a vision of America that the rest of the world did—and could—love. Through his political intuition and force of personality, he has the potential to advance a strong progressive agenda at home and abroad. These are my practical reasons why Barack Obama should be the next President of the United States.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Because Political Surveys Are Fun

I'll get into it more later, but I've decided to amp up the political presence on this blog—or, rather, have one. But before I start doing my best to bias your political opinions, here is a survey based about political candidates a reader has asked me to forward along (yes, I took it, and yes, it was fast and painless:


The purpose of this survey is to examine how people think and feel about the political issues, parties, and candidates in the upcoming election. In the survey, you will be asked a series of questions about two political candidates, John McCain and Hillary Clinton. We are very interested in how individuals that find information on the web think about politics, and your participation would be greatly appreciated. In total, the survey should take about 15 minutes to complete. The survey is completely anonymous and you can skip any questions you do not wish to answer.

Click here to take the survey.

Please feel free to contact Chris Weber ( at Stony Brook University with any questions or concerns. Thanks for your help!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Brunch Review: Mahogany Grill in Ithaca, NY

Brunch is arguably the best meal ever invented: more filling and alcoholic than your typical breakfast, more eggy and bacony than your typical lunch, and so slow and lazy you need all the time normally allotted to both. The question then becomes: it's Sunday morning (or afternoon) and you want to settle in for a nice long meal over coffee, omelettes, crab cakes, waffles, Bloody Marys and mimosas.

Whenever I am in Ithaca, the Significant Other and I always go to The Mahagony Grill for Sunday brunch. The Mahogany Grill definitely tops my list of favorite places to go for brunch. It's elegant, yet casual enough that I don't feel odd showing up in jeans. The prices are reasonable, at less than $25 including tax and tip for two people. The food is always good; I almost always get the brandied french toast with cinnamon and nutmeg, but the specials are always delicious as well. The significant other usually gets an omelette or eggs benedict, or perhaps the crab cakes, and today I had one of the specials: a Belgian waffle with Bailey's cream sauce and bananas. And to top it all off is a little-known secret: all entrees served after 12 noon come with complimentary mimosas or champagne.

In other news, I wrote this entire post without functioning 0, ), p, :, ;, or / keys.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Solar System Analog Revealed by Microlensing

Normally I don't blog about astronomy in the news, usually because it's either boring or poorly spun or everyone else has already done a more thorough job of it than I'd be willing to anyhow. So I'm stunned that even though it was announced three days ago, I have seen no mention on my portion of the blogosphere about the first discovery of a solar system analog—even the Bad Astronomer only mentioned the independently discovered and announced merely Jupiter analog, though the solar system analog is arguably a much bigger deal since it has both roughly Jupiter and Saturn mass planets.

So how was this system found, why is it important—and why do I suddenly care about planets? The last question is easy: the lead author on the paper is Scott Gaudi, a professor here at Ohio State, and in fact much of the modelling and work that went into deciphering the event's lighcurve was done by one of my officemates. I say "event" because these ~0.7 and ~0.3 Jupiter mass planets around a roughly half solar mass star were found via gravitational microlensing; the star system happened to pass immediately in front of another star relative to Earth, thus magnifying the background star. The change in apparent brightness of this background star is affected by how the mass in the lensing star system is arranged, and so a detailed analysis of the lightcurve can reveal planets in the system. (If you want real details, I think the press release does a fairly good job.) What is so exciting about this particular event is that this is the first time there has been a bright enough microlensing event that has been followed closely enough to be sensitive to a Jupiter+Saturn planetary arrangement—which strongly suggests that such systems (such as our own!) are extremely common.

UPDATE (02/19/2008): Apparently I didn't do a very good job explaining why this is exciting. An astronomer asked me:

I'll grant that it's interesting, but is it really unexpected? The first extrasolar planet discovered was potentially exciting. Now, hundreds are known, and it's clear that their discovery is limited only by the amount of time and money devoted to finding them. Extrasolar multiple-planet systems are also known. Or to put it another way, I'd perhaps be more shocked if a Jupiter-Saturn analogue hadn't been discovered after a little more than a decade of finding massive extrasolar planets.
My reply: Surprising depends on who you ask, but while there have been plenty of exoplanets found (and maybe 2 dozen systems with multiple planets), most of them have been close-in planets, so-called "hot Jupiters" ... planets with periods of only a few days, maybe up to several tens of days. Radial velocity studies have only been going on for about ten years now, which is why they are just now (as in, last week) announcing planets in roughly 10-year orbits: they are restricted to monitoring nearly full orbits to be sure what they are detecting is a planet. Microlensing is the only planet-finding techinque that is actually more sensitive to far-out planets than close-in ones (both the radial velocity and the transitting signal are higher for close-in planets), but people haven't been using it to look look for planets as extensively and as long as they have RV and transits. So it is more comforting than "surprising" that we have found a solar system analog: for years the only systems found were crazy things that looked nothing like our own solar system.