February 2008

Obamanation! Obamanable! Obamarated! Obamatastic!
Obamanothermiddleeasterncountryfornogoodreasonidontthinkso!

Barack Obama

I’ve been an Obama supporter for a long time. There’s no correlation between experience and success when it comes to the Presidency. Our previous least-experienced President was probably Abraham Lincoln. Most experienced? Well, Herbert Hoover ought to be in the running for that; George Bush Sr. as well. Kinda makes you think, doesn’t it?

Barack Obama is exactly what he seems: terrifically smart, well-intentioned, utterly free of the personal insecurities that drive far too much of the decision-making in the current administration, and eminently electable. He stands a much better chance of winning against McCain than any other Democratic candidate would have. The canard that he’s light on policy simply confuses a primary-season tactic for a general electoral strategy. There’s no point trying to out-wonk Hillary Clinton, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t done his homework: when the time comes, it’s there in reserve.

I’m not unquestioningly for the Democrat in every election, by the way. It’s just that the Republican Party has abandoned all the principles that ever would have made it attractive to me or to any other conservative leftist.

“Conservative leftist” is not a contradiction, it’s just a description: someone who believes that progressive taxation has proven itself over the decades, and that the major role of government is to step in and regulate situations where individual actors trying to maximize their own benefit would harm everyone’s interests (including, in the long run, their own). In other words, the government’s main job is to prevent game-theoretical dilemmas in which we all lose because there was no one to say “These are the rules, and for society to work, the rules must be honored.”

Some of these rules are easy: don’t steal things, for example. We all understand that even though it would be to any given individual’s benefit to break into houses and steal consumer electronics, it’s better for all of us if nobody does that, because then we don’t have a situation where every homeowner has to pay the individual rate for constant surveillance over their property.

There are lots of rules like that, or should be: don’t poison the environment, even though you can manufacture something more cheaply if you pollute. Don’t put your workers in danger, even though safety measures will cost money. Don’t lie in your SEC prospectus, because even though you might make out like a bandit at the public offering, we’ll all suffer if everyone’s lying about their company’s worth all the time. Don’t chop down those trees, even though you can sell a lot of paper and construction lumber if you do, because it’s the last forest standing in this area of the state. And so on…

The Republican party somehow decided that deregulation and pushing the envelope were inherently good things, and failed to realize that we’d established the envelope for a reason. That’s the “conservative” part of “conservative leftist”: what’s worked in the past should probably be kept. Unregulated industries cost us dearly: the savings and loan scandal (remember that?) was a result of deregulation; the subprime mortgage crisis was probably a failure to regulate in time.

The conservative in me says “Why don’t these so-called ‘conservatives’ get it? Don’t they see that the idea of government regulation should be, well, conserved? That it has worked? That it has a record of successfully preventing fairly obvious problems? That collective action is cheaper than individual action, because of economies of scale?”

Barack Obama gets this. Hillary Clinton does in part, but not in her bones, and she doesn’t understand how to communicate it, how to convince people of it. She’s not going to make this particular kind of change happen, except at a small scale, in areas that she was already paying attention to and where the damage is most obvious. Obama might not succeed either, but at least he understands the task. Yes, Hillary Clinton adopted “change” as a rhetorical strategy when she saw how Obama was using it… but while she has the words, she’ll never have the tune.

Obamalicious.

Also, he was firmly and publicly against the Iraq War from the beginning, and Hillary… Well, sorry, that’s one vote I just can’t forgive. Judgment when it counts means a lot more than experience.

A lot of us in the programming community have been looking forward to the first release of Paul Graham and Robert Morris’s “Arc” language, which Graham has been talking about for a long time on his widely-read site, paulgraham.com.

On January 29th, they finally released a first-draft implemention. Although billed as experimental and subject to change, it’s still something a lot of people will want to play with. Those of us who for whom programming in Lisp is a cherished memory, a kind of long-lost Eden to which we hope one day to return, are interested to see if Arc can become what we’ve been hoping for: a Lisp-like language that’s caught up to the modern world and that gathers enough developer momentum to flourish.

Unfortunately, the Arc web site, arclanguage.org, doesn’t answer the very first question most potential downloaders would ask: is it open source?, or as we used to say, is it free software? The site not only doesn’t say what license the software is released under, it doesn’t even state clearly that the software is open source! I finally downloaded the package itself and poke around inside to find out:

This software is copyright (c) Paul Graham and Robert Morris. Permission to use it is granted under the Perl Foundations's Artistic License 2.0.

Okay. So it’s open source, albeit under the least open-source of all the open source licenses. Sigh. I normally wouldn’t even go to the trouble of downloading the software to find that out, I only bothered because I was already quite interested in Arc.

I’d post on their mailing list a comment about the hidden license problem, but they apparently don’t have a mailing list. Instead, they have low-functionality web forums, and it looks like the only way you can interact with the community is through that forum interface. This is a pity: the thread is the fundamental unit of information on the Internet, and there’s no reason to force people to use one particular interface to access a set of threads. Perhaps some people like web forums, but others would prefer to access the threads via their mailreaders. If I have to use a web interface just to talk to a community, it makes me less likely to join that community, because I’ll start to associate participation with wrist pain. Let me choose my own interface, please.

Speaking of which, how about a bug tracker? Or any of the other tools that are now standard for open source projects? Some of the forum posts indicate that there’s a version control repository somewhere (using git), but the web pages don’t point to it, at least not as far as I could see. So those looking to follow development in real time will have to hunt around.

Given that the web site says “we’d like to encourage a sense of community among Arc users”, this is all a bit disappointing, and puzzling. It’s like they don’t actually want to build a community, which would be fine (it’s their project), but then why declare otherwise?

Mitt Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination today, with one of the most disgusting quotes I’ve ever heard (if Talking Points Memo, my favorite political blog, is reporting accurately, and they usually do):

“If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Senator Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign, be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.”

I wasn’t ever going to vote for Romney, but I have to admit, I never expected him to sink that low. It’s so brazen, it just might backfire; one can hope, anyway.

Over and over, we hear the anti-war Democrats get accused of damaging national unity in wartime, of surrendering to terror, etc. (The “surrendering to terror” accusation is particularly insidious, because it implicitly strengthens the bogus 9/11<–>Saddam link, yet the accuser can always get out by saying “Oh, I was just referring to the terrorists in Iraq who are killing our troops!”)

What sticks in the craw is how Romney never tries to see if the blame jacket will fit any other shoulders. Leading the country into a war without a popular mandate, against a country that did not attack us, with no backup plan should the original (unrealistic) goal should turn out to be unattainable… Now that’s irresponsible, that’s damaging to national unity, isn’t it? Sorry, but you don’t get a united front for free, just by declaring war. You have to consider how popular support for the war will be sustained over the long term, even beyond your Presidency, or else don’t get into that war. Don’t blame your opponents later because you didn’t do your homework. Roosevelt made it clear for a long time that he thought the United States’ entry into World War II was inevitable, but he didn’t actually seek a declaration of war until Pearl Harbor was attacked; he knew that the popular support wasn’t there and couldn’t be manufactured.

Now that the Democrats are increasingly turning against the war in Iraq, Romney all but calls them traitors. But he never seems to think that George W. Bush might have done something irresponsible by starting a war without the full backing of the nation.