Friday, November 14, 2008

Storm in a BBC teacup

I was trying to avoid writing about the tedious "Sachsgate" saga that has been dominating the British media for the past few weeks. So why now? Well, for a few different reasons, but mostly because the NY Times has just done a piece on it, therefore saving me a lot of the work of explaining the whole sorry tale to American readers.

But, just in case you can't be bothered reading that in-depth article, here's the 10-second version: two well-known comedians did a radio show during which they left a few rather puerile messages on an aging actor's answerphone. Two listeners complained. Then a rabidly rightwing tabloid which happens to hate the BBC picked up on the "shocking story" and published a lurid account of the incident, creating a self-perpetuating media shitstorm.

Politicians get involved, people lose their jobs, angry villagers wave pitchforks.

The comparison in the NYT article with Janet Jackson's Superbowl titflash is an apt one. As well as highlighting a certain underlying prudishness on both sides of the Atlantic, both incidents are also excellent examples of the irritating power of a moronic moral minority. These self-appointed guardians of taste claim to protect us from depravity while taking a curious pleasure in revealing and lingering over every salacious detail.

I particularly enjoyed Charlie Brooker's recent account of the snowballing idiocy, which he describes as a "pitiful gitstorm". He also makes a sensible-sounding suggestion about creating anti-complaint hotlines for situations like this one, whereby reasonable people could phone in and cancel out complaints from hysterical halfwits.

If only it were that easy. Here in California we already have a similar idea in place. It's called the proposition system, and unfortunately sometimes there are just too many bigots and cretins to go round.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dancing in the streets 2

UPDATE: My friend Michael G's video of the celebrations. It sums up the atmosphere of last night brilliantly. And he managed to capture the moment when the cheering hoards closed down Valencia Street, starting a street party that went on for hours.

Celebrating Obama. from Michael on Vimeo.

Dancing in the streets

I'm feeling a little rough this morning, so I'll keep this short. But last night was fun. Lots of fun. We went to a friend's house to watch the results come in and, after Obama's victory speech, we headed out onto the streets. It was like Italy had won the World Cup, only with less mopeds and more high-fiving. People cheered, car horns blared. At 19th and Valencia people started gathering on the street corners and then, suddenly, we were all in the street. People danced, and drank, and shouted quite a lot. The police stood by and watched. It was great.

And we weren't alone. There were other impromptu street parties at 16th and Guerrero, on Divisadero, in the Castro (despite the fact that the Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage looks to have won), in Berkeley, Seattle, New York, Washington, Chicago... To see more, just go to Flickr and search for recent photos tagged with Obama and party. Yes we can? Oh yes we did.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama takes toontown

CORRECTION: It seems not everyone is as nervous about Obama's chances of victory in today's election as I thought. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau has already called victory for the Illinois senator in a Doonesbury strip he submitted to newspapers a week ago.

Citing figures that sound suspiciously close to those quoted by, Trudeau decided he was confident enough about Obama winning to predict the historic moment in a cartoon due to run in tomorrow. Unfortunately, quite a few of the newspapers who run his strip aren't being very supportive of his probability based news-gathering techniques (presumably they'd be happier if he just made stuff up instead).

I particularly liked the quote in the linked story above from a McCain spokesman who hoped the strip "proves to be as predictive as it is consistently lame." I'm no clairvoyant, but that doesn't sound to me like the confident boast of a campaign about to pull off the biggest upset in election history.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The only thing to fear is failure

Despite nearly every poll showing that Barack Obama is going be elected the 44th president of the United States in just a few days' time, no one I know is taking anything for granted yet. Even here in the Democrat stronghold of San Francisco, where I've only seen only one lonely McCain-Palin bumper sticker in months of looking, my liberal friends are more nervous than confident. After two disputed election losses, the blue half of the country isn't daring to believe that the dark days are over just yet. Instead, the atmosphere is a curious mixture of fear and hope.

And it's easy to understand why people here are scared when you read articles like this one. It quotes a Republican couple from Florida who think Obama may be a Muslim because: "He says he’s not, but we have no way of knowing." They follow this bizarre example of circular logic by suggesting that Obama's middle name was given in tribute to Saddam Hussein (it would be a surprise if this were true, considering Obama was born in 1961, a full 18 years before his middle-namesake come to power in Iraq). These people, and many more just like them, will be bringing the full force of their intellects to bear in voting booths around the country this coming Tuesday.

But the one thing that everyone seems to be agreed on is that, no matter what the end result, this election will come to be seen as a historic moment for this country, for good or ill. I'm not so sure. I feel as if things won't be quite as bad as some fear should Obama lose, and perhaps more importantly considering the likely result neither will things be as wonderful should he win. After all, I remember the euphoria surrounding Tony Blair's election landslide in 1997, and look what happened after that.

And this is what scares me. If, as he should, Obama wins, and the Democrats maintain control of both houses (with a far more effective majority in the Senate), then expectations are going to be sky-high. But the reality remains that we are in the early stages of a global economic crisis that is going to get much worse before it gets better, which means rising unemployment and falling incomes for some time to come. And the US remains embroiled in two messy wars, neither with any real end in sight. No matter what Obama's stated intentions, extricating America's forces from Iraq isn't going to be easy, nor is it likely to be pretty. And even with the increased military resources at his disposal that would follow any successful pullout from Iraq, bringing meaningful peace or stability to Afghanistan will be as difficult as ever.

In these circumstances, it seems right that people should feel cautious right now. I just hope we all remember to keep our expectations in check after Tuesday, too.

File under: I wish I'd thought of that

I'm officially in love with, the presidential election website run by baseball statistician Nate Silver. Operating under the tagline "political polling done right," he has applied a fantasy sports enthusiast's love of number-crunching to the upcoming ballot, examining the various polls and statistics, and arriving at some interesting conclusions.

In particular, his thoughtful, intelligent analysis of why the various polls are wrong (and let's not forget that to a greater or lesser degree they are all wrong) makes you wonder why we pay attention to any of them in the first place. For example, there's the simple fact that most modern polling companies don't call cell phone numbers, despite the increasing numbers of voters who don't have a landline.

Even better, the site is about much more than mere stats, and includes some excellent on-the-ground first-person reports from campaign battlegrounds around the country. Because these stories aren't the site's main feature (and because this isn't a traditional news website), they tend to be more anecdotal, subjective, and, frankly, interesting than much of the coverage coming out of the traditional news media that I've seen. Just read this provocative story about a racist couple who say they are voting for Obama if you don't believe me.

Best of all, it's all put together by just a handful of people (there are only two credited writers -- even if there are more "backroom" people involved now, I'm guessing there's probably no more than about five total). Note to self: must come up with an idea like this one...